Author: Charlie Barnes, ANU
On Sunday 10 April, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the 2022 Australian federal election would be held on 21 May. In reality, the election campaign had been in full swing for weeks. Morrison’s prime ministership has been characterised more by scandals than programmatic reform and Labor has a six-point lead in published polls. His back is against the wall.
But Morrison has proven himself to be an effective campaigner, coming from behind to win a ‘miracle’ election victory for his party in 2019. He will use all the tools at his disposal to win again in 2022, including foreign policy.
Foreign policy has historically been relatively bipartisan in Australian politics and not a major issue in elections. But foreign policy can matter at the margins which is, after all, where elections are won or lost. The Coalition Government will not recoil from attempting to wedge the Labor Party on foreign policy if it can gain an advantage. There is form in this space.
In February 2022, Defence Minister Peter Dutton asserted that the Chinese Communist Party was ‘going to back’ Labor during the election. A stream of comments by Coalition members suggesting that Labor would be ‘soft on China’ followed. Labor has also stooped to bringing foreign policy into partisan politics, although to a lesser extent, questioning the Chinese lease of the Port of Darwin and echoing Morrison’s unhelpful claim that the other is a ‘Manchurian’ candidate.
With the Coalition quick to exploit the perception in the electorate that Labor is softer on national security, Labor is forced to largely mirror Coalition defence and security policy.
The two parties’ policies on China are largely aligned — both have called out human rights abuses and supported the boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The difference is in tone rather than in substance. If Labor were to win government in May, they would be less likely to use megaphone diplomacy in their dealings with China and the region and more inclined to seek gradual rapprochement. The end of this year marks the 50th year of Australia-China diplomatic relations and will provide an opportunity for positive exchange – one Labor is more likely than the Coalition to seize.
Whether there will be any substantial winding back of the securitisation of Australia’s foreign policy after the election is an open question. There has been a structural shift in the way Australia’s foreign policy is made. The influence of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has waned relative to the security agencies under recent Coalition governments and it is no longer able to shape critical aspects of foreign policy.
Morrison often turns to the National Security Committee (NSC) of Cabinet on foreign policy matters. Submissions to the NSC are discussed by Ministers and officials from all relevant departments and agencies, including DFAT, but the Foreign Minister has struggled to make her voice heard and DFAT’s concerns have been subservient to the security agencies’. Under his government and this Foreign Minister, diplomatic considerations have been overlooked to the detriment of Australia’s relations with key strategic partners in the region and beyond.
It is unclear, for example, when Australia’s ambassadors to Paris or Jakarta were told of the AUKUS agreement, let alone if they were consulted in the lead up to the deal. French President Emmanuel Macron did not hold back in expressing his outrage at the decision, putting Australia’s relationship with France in the freezer. Indonesia’s public response was more measured, but it was deeply offended about not being consulted. Australian diplomats have been in overdrive to arrest the damage to hard-earned trust in these vital relationships.
Another example of policy bypassing DFAT officials to the detriment of the national interest was Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. Payne’s comments were damaging to the China relationship, reduced the chances of the Chinese government participating in the inquiry and baffled regional partners. Had proper policy process been followed, with consultation with DFAT, Payne would likely not have made the statement.
The over-reliance on the NSC for foreign policy formation and the politicisation of foreign policy is also increasing the reactive nature of policymaking. The decline in DFAT’s influence in the policymaking process means Australia is less able to develop longer-term and strategically considered policy based on facts on the ground.
Labor has long spoken of ‘ramping up its diplomacy in the region’ and, if it wins the May election, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong has committed to appointing an ‘ASEAN special envoy’. Wong has a powerful voice in her party that will ensure DFAT’s position is more forceful in policy formation.
But Australia’s security agencies have cemented themselves in foreign policy formulation. Structural reform is required to re-instate DFAT’s role in strategic policy formulation and retract the securitisation of Australia’s foreign policy. Whether Labor is willing and able to tackle the challenge should they form government remains to be seen. Certainly, they will avoid the topic during the election campaign for risk of being portrayed as soft on security.
A rhetorical hardening of Australia’s foreign policy is likely to play out over the election campaign as the Coalition Government attempts to paint Labor as soft on China and security issues and Labor tries to neutralise the issue, even if the much-feared ‘khaki election’ does not eventuate. There will likely be a return to equilibrium after the election, but the securitisation of Australia’s foreign policy beyond the election, no matter which party forms government, is a problem that is likely here to stay.
Charlie Barnes is on the editorial staff of News JU. He is a New Colombo Plan Scholar and the 2022 New Colombo Plan Indonesia Fellow.
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