There are mixed messages for Australia’s foreign policy with the advent of the new Gillard Government and the subsequent distribution of portfolios.
The departure of Kevin Rudd to the back benches will be greeted with a huge sigh of relief for those who believe Australia is just about on course in its international dealings. If Rudd had been asked to stay on in the Ministry he would certainly have been handed Foreign Affairs, with the likelihood he would subject the department to the same inconsistencies and policy reversals that plagued the last few months of his prime ministership.
Rudd is a man who, for the moment at least, has lost his way. He is well advised to take a holiday - there are many who wish that it would be a permanent holiday away from politics - but he has decided to stay on and fight the next election. Gillard showed excellent judgment by refusing to take him into the Ministry immediately and the former PM should use the next few weeks to examine his anal-retentive tendencies.
Should Labor win later this year a job will have to be found for him, but despite his diplomatic experience and Mandarin language skills, he should be steered away from anything that has to do with guiding this country’s foreign policy.
One good reason for this is the present incumbent. Stephen Smith was astonished when he received foreign affairs after Labor’s victory in 2007 - he had expected education - and admitted he would be on a steep learning curve. In fact he has been an accomplished performer and is well on his way to becoming one of Australia’s outstanding Foreign Ministers.
While micro-manager Rudd was always at his shoulder, Smith nevertheless emerged as his own man and his calm, unruffled manner was just what was required when dealing with difficult situations such as the Stern Hu affair and the deteriorating relations with New Delhi over assaults on Indian students.
It is inevitable that a Gillard Government will have a greater emphasis on domestic affairs which could leave Smith with more opportunity to put his own mark on foreign policy. Everything that has been seen of him up to now suggests that this would be a positive development.
However, the shift to issues at home must not come at the expense of a further erosion of resources for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It has already taken more than its fair share of cuts and anything further would place an unacceptable burden on Australia’s ability to act on the world stage. Contrary to belief in some quarters we do matter internationally and our views are noted, even if we do not always get our way.
The mini-reshuffle that followed Gillard’s elevation to the leadership has seen Smith take on Simon Crean’s trade portfolio. As a temporary measure this is fair enough - the two areas are interconnected and Smith is the best man to keep things ticking along. In the longer term there is a danger he will become distracted from the pressing issues of Australia’s continued involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, while his ability to promote significant initiatives in the region and further afield will be curtailed.
There are enough important issues in the trade arena - none more than the completion of the Doha Round - for Trade to warrant its own Minister, and Gillard should appoint one if she is still in power after the election.
One thing that will not change is Australia’s close ties with the United States. Those on the left of this argument continue to bemoan this country’s “obsequious” relationship with the superpower, but there is really no logical alternative and nor is it in Australia’s interest to look for closer ties elsewhere. The EU is in turmoil and the nature of the Chinese State means we should be treating it as a valued business partner and no more.
Gillard took the opportunity of their first telephone conversation to assure US President Barack Obama of her commitment to Australia’s Afghanistan policy, and there is certainly no suggestion that the ANZUS Treaty is under review.
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About the Author
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.
He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.