Punch: It’s no biggie if Julia doesn’t like foreign affairs
It’s been a tough few weeks for Julia Gillard. She was accused of pre-election lying over carbon pricing, demonised at a comical fringe-dwelling rally, and conservative radio hosts competed over who can be most disrespectful towards her.
Gillard’s incompetence at foreign affairs is another area of criticism that’s becoming louder every overseas visit she makes. She was widely criticised for not advocating strongly enough the government’s support for the no-fly zone over Libya, and her first visit to America was eminently forgettable, including an unnecessarily emotional and ham-laden address to Congress.
The consensus is that Gillard is an international lightweight incapable of advocating the government’s position. But what Gillard’s critics fail to understand is that her weakness in foreign affairs is inconsequential.
Foreign affairs, after all, should not be in a Prime Minister’s job description. Although Australia is a trading nation in a globalised world economy, government elites have little role in advancing Australia’s interest globally.
International relations is about individuals and firms operating within a global market, not government elites talking behind closed doors. As long as barriers to trade and investment are low, which Australia’s generally are, the onus is on individuals and firms to trade, invest and make money. A captain of industry, for example, is more important than a Prime Minister on the international stage.
It’s much more important for a Prime Minister to be firmly focused on domestic economic matters, such as microeconomic reform, rather than distracted by international ones they have little influence over. Gillard’s admission that she has no passion for foreign affairs should have been praised and not derided.
Some commentators on the right hype international diplomacy as a matter of considerable national importance. For example, this theme permeates just about every article from The Australian’s Greg Sheridan. Yet they are equally dismissive of a government’s role in managing the domestic economy, preferring the free market over government intervention and maladministration.
It’s a contradiction that cannot be explained. On a domestic level, a free market is supposed to allocate resources relatively efficiently, promoting the interests of the individual and nation. But on the international level, intervening government elites are said to be essential in promoting Australia’s interests.
At least the left is consistent—consistently wrong, but consistent nevertheless—that government elites have an important role in the domestic economy and international affairs.
One may counter that Prime Ministerial diplomacy is important and cite John Howard’s close relationship with former United States President George W. Bush and the subsequent free trade agreement. Howard was certainly instrumental in pushing through the Australian United State Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) in 2005, which the former government hyperbolically trumpeted as the “commercial equivalent of the ANZUS treaty”. But AUSFTA was merely a political document dressed up in economic clothing and its impact has been astonishingly bad.
Australian exports to the world have grown on average by 14.2 per cent since 2005, compared to 6.5 per cent to the United States. Although exchange rates and commodity prices also impacts on trade flows, there is no evidence that AUSFTA has increased Australian exports. If anything, the agreement has stunted trade with America, highlighting the counterproductive role of government elites in the global economy.
It’s also possible to argue that a Prime Minister is Australia’s chief negotiator in certain international forums. But as the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009 showed, nations aren’t about to negotiate away their interests, no matter the charm of the negotiator. It would be humiliating if they did.
The irrelevance of a Prime Minister internationally raises the issue of the diplomatic corps more generally. Australia’s budget for diplomacy is around $700 million a year, which makes us the fifth most tightfisted member of the OECD in terms of diplomatic expenditure, behind cheapskates Ireland, the Slovak Republic, New Zealand and Luxembourg. As many in the foreign affairs cheer squad have pointed out, this is an unacceptable situation.
With the government committed to a budget surplus by 2012-13, the diplomatic budget is ripe for more pruning. Australia should never aim for fifth best, except in cricket which would be an improvement from our current situation, and ascending to the top of the tightfisted tree for diplomatic expenditure is a worthy goal.
One country’s bureaucrat talking to another one’s behind closed doors advances the interests of neither country and Australia should be a trend setter in cutting back expenditure on such pointless practice.
It’s likely that Julia Gillard will continue to receive almost unprecedented criticism for her performance as Prime Minister, some if it deserved. But when it comes to foreign affairs, the status quo assumption that a Prime Minister has an important role should be questioned, rather than the performance of Gillard herself.
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