The foreign affairs guessing game: first stop for the PM?
With foreign policy barely rating a mention in the election campaign, the strongest indication we will have of the eventual winner’s view on the world is where they decide to go first.
Like most elections this campaign wasn’t fought on foreign policy.
Even with the tragic deaths of three soldiers in Afghanistan it was a passing topic. Tony Abbott did promise to dump Australia’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council and appoint a Minister for International Development. But the closest we got to a genuine debate on our place in the world was one about which island country to our north to send asylum seekers.
In the next few weeks Australia will know for sure who its prime minister will be, but either way it will know very little about what that person thinks about our place in the world.
The symbolism involved in the inaugural foreign trip of a leader should not be underestimated. Their chosen destination often sets the tone for what they hope will be the hallmark of their foreign policy.
Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard & Kevin Rudd each chose Indonesia – “our closest neighbour” – for their first overseas trips. In Rudd’s case he quickly followed it up with a major swing through the US, Europe (for multilateral meetings) and Asia emphasising what he called “the three pillars” of his foreign policy.
In the US, while President Obama kept with tradition and made his first foreign jaunt to Canada his first major overseas trip was actually to Europe. There he took part in G20 & NATO meetings and delivered a major speech on nuclear disarmament. Surprisingly he didn’t choose Asia despite his rhetoric of being the first “Pacific President” and indeed has only visited the region once, trotting off to Europe five times in the same period instead.
Footage of Julia Gillard strutting the world stage is yet to grace our television screens and newspapers, but nothing solidifies your role as Prime Minister more than rubbing shoulders with other leaders or visiting the troops in battle.
Shortly after her elevation to the top job she neglected to attend the G20 Summit being held in Canada. Admittedly leaving the country would not have been a good look after Kevin Rudd’s travel schedule was much criticised and he became known as ‘Kevin747’. But Gillard shaking hands with the likes of Barack Obama, Hu Jintao, Dmitry Medvedev and David Cameron so early on would have more than made up for any backlash.
Gillard also stood up the Pacific Islands Forum during the election campaign.
While it would have been unusual for the Prime Minister to leave the country during a campaign, I’ve written about how it could have resulted in a foreign policy coup for her by neutralising the asylum seeker debate early on. Even though Port Villa is closer to Canberra than Perth and could have been a simple day trip, she ultimately chose to stay in the country.
Despite this, Gillard recently announced she “would like to think that engagement in our region is what would stamp the Gillard government. I mean, that is where our future lies”. This regional emphasis, coupled with her bungling of asylum seeker negotiations with East Timor, would make that country the odds-on favourite for her first trip abroad if she remains Prime Minister.
Following this expect a quick trip to the United States designed to kill two birds with one stone: meet President Obama who she was meant hold bilateral talks with at the G20, and address the UN General Assembly in late September. The latter will be a test of a Gillard Government’s commitment to our bid for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council which unofficially requires the leader to visit UN Headquarters each year to press their case.
If Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister we have a much clearer idea where he will go.
In an interview with The Australian during the campaign, Abbott said he would visit “Indonesia first—the plan would be to do a quick swing around the neighbourhood, and the neighbourhood is Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.”
Surprisingly this doesn’t include Nauru following Scott Morrison’s visit during the campaign, but Abbott went on to say, “Then you would do a wider sweep, depending on logistics—you would have to do China and Japan on the first trip beyond the neighbourhood and you would have to go to Afghanistan very, very quickly. You would have to go to London and Washington but you shouldn’t forget New Delhi. I think New Delhi has been the great absence from Australia’s diplomatic thinking over the last decade.”
Quotes like these show Abbott has clearly thought deeply about where he views Australia’s place in the world going forward: focussing on old ties with the United States and the United Kingdom while engaging with upcoming powers in Asia and being involved regionally.
The quotes also illustrate a high degree of diplomatic prowess and political strategy: stick with tradition and visit Indonesia first, then neutralise the asylum seeker debate in East Timor, head off to China and Japan next without upsetting either by only including one, visit the troops in battle, then the mother country and the all important United States, before a trip to an emerging and often overlooked power like India (perhaps to announce uranium sales).
But Abbott has also pledged to cut-down on Prime Ministerial travel saying he will not be a “Prime Minister of the world and I think you could be confident that I won’t get swollen-headed about my place in the world… I don’t think there is a need for the Prime Minister to be at every international talk fest.”
The problem is that it all adds up.
Besides the customary five or six meetings a year the Prime Minister must attend – the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) & Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Group of 20 (G20) – there are others like the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) that are often tacked on alongside a suite of courtesy bilateral visits.
The question for Abbott will be which will he neglect or undermine by sending a lieutenant in his place?
But for both leaders perhaps the most pressing issue in terms of foreign policy is just who to put in charge of it.
Rudd has been reportedly taking soundings for potential staff as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Gillard will be eager to please him and avoid any unsettling by-elections. For the Opposition, Julie Bishop clearly isn’t up to the job and with Joe Hockey confirmed as Treasurer it might be a role well suited to Malcolm Turnbull.
Either way, we will know our foreign policy destination soon enough.
Thom Woodroofe, 21, was the 2009 Young Victorian of the Year and founder of Left Right Think-Tank. He is a frequent commentator on international affairs.
Email: thomwoodroofe (at) gmail.com
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