Foreign policy has been thrown into the spotlight as Australia takes up its seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The federal government says the two-year mandate shows Australia is a trusted member of the international community, and will make Australians proud. But as Australia enters a federal election year, the Opposition argues the government has made a costly political mistake, and should instead be more concerned with what’s going on closer to home.
SBS spoke to Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop about some of their foreign policy priorities in 2013 and how decisive a role this area can play in determining who will govern Australia for the next four years. Kristina Kukolja reports. The federal government says the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will remain one of Australia’s main foreign policy priorities.
NATO forces, among them Australian soldiers, are due to leave the country by the end of next year, as the alliance transfers security control to Afghan forces. It’s an area both sides of federal politics agree must remain a focal point for Australia, despite challenges including those posed by a growing number of so-called insider attacks on international forces.
Senator Carr says he expects the return of Australian soldiers to continue, undeterred.
“The withdrawal of Australian troops, the withdrawal of other members of the assistance force in Afghanistan is underway, it’s taking place and we’re committed to that and we expect and we’ve always expected that during this process there will be challenges and tensions. One of these is green-on-blue attacks, but you’ve got to put it in context, you’ve got to remember that today there’s an estimated 300-thousand Afghans fighting and performing as police and armed forces besides the members of the Coalition who are assisting them and their government and inevitably there are more opportunities for green-on-blue attacks as a result.”
The federal government has hailed Australia’s return to the United Nations Security Council as a non-permanent member as a major political success, at home and abroad.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr says the appointment to chair the Security Council’s Sanctions committee shows Australia’s high standing among Security Council members.
In addition, Senator Carr says as a non-permanent member Australia hopes to make a contribution on number of international issues, including the Syrian conflict.
“Progress on nuclear disarmament, progress on non-proliferation, work on an arms trade treaty that deals with the rise in the number of Kalashnikovs and other so-called light weapons around the world – I’ve repeatedly spoken about that as being among our objectives. Australia is also pressing for a medical pact in respect of Syria so that in the absence of a ceasefire and progress towards a democratic plural Syria at least we’ve got a good agreement on the ground that ambulances won’t be attacked, and medical personnel will be able to look after the wounded population.”
But the federal Coalition says this isn’t a sufficiently clear articulation of what Australia hopes to achieve during its time on the Security Council.
Another mistake the government has made, it says, is the decision to redirect hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign aid funding to the immigration detention system after securing the seat.
According to foreign affairs spokeswoman, it’s one in a long line of broken promises, including the carbon tax and a failure to achieve a budget surplus, which are eroding the Australian people’s trust in the government.
However, Foreign Minister Bob Carr doesn’t believe the move will be politically damaging.
“I think Australians overwhelmingly believe that we should be doing everything we can to counter people smuggling activity and that means providing dis-incentives to the people smugglers and the way they recruit to bring people to Australia and you’ve got to have, as the specialist panel concluded, under Angus Houston, you’ve got to have offshore processing to do that.”
The federal opposition says Australia’s recent vote on Palestinian status at the United Nations has undermined the country’s credibility at the world body.
The Opposition says Prime Minister Julia Gillard wanted to maintain long-standing support for Israel, by voting against a Palestinian bid for upgraded status.
But Julie Bishop says Bob Carr went against Ms Gillard by deciding to abstain on the vote.
“Foreign Minister Carr has essentially stripped Prime Minister Gillard of authority on foreign policy matters by actively undermining her on the issue of the Palestinian United Nations vote and overriding her decision on how Australia should vote. He then boasted that he had 90 per cent of the caucus backing his position, rather than the prime minister’s decision. Not only does this undermine the prime minister’s authority within her own party, but now world leaders, indeed nations serving on the Security Council, must recognise that Julia Gillard can’t guarantee that she can deliver on any of her foreign policy commitments lest Bob Carr again disagree and roll her in the caucus.”
Bob Carr says Australia will maintain its advocacy for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — one that guarantees sovereignty for the Palestinians and security for Israel.
But he’s described Israel’s recent approval of over one-thousand new housing units in East Jerusalem as a provocation.
Senator Carr says Israel’s decision to continue building settlements on occupied Palestinian land is a serious hindrance on the road to peace.
“We fundamentally oppose settlement activity, We’re opposed to all settlement activity and we make no apologies for that. This is Arab land captured in the 1967 war. It’s against the Geneva Conventions for a conquering power to settle its own population on land it won in war and that’s why we oppose settlement activity. Meanwhile, settlements are complicating the peace process. They’re just making it vastly more complicated to get to a two-state solution and I’ve warned Israel in the spirit of a friend that if you have more settlements then it’s going to make a Palestinian state impossible and that’s going to leave Israel administering a growing Arab population and there’s only one view the world will take of that.”
But Julie Bishop says Australia’s foreign policy should instead focus on countries in Australia’s immediate region.
She says if the Coalition were to win the next federal election, the first countries she would visit as foreign minister would be Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, China and South Korea.
Ms Bishop says it’s part of the Coalition’s plan to pursue relationships with countries of a strategic and trade-related interest to Australia.
“My focus will be on building relations in the region with Papua New Guinea, our nearest neighbour, with Indonesia, an important strategic and trading nation for Australia, as well as our major trading partners Japan, China and South Korea and the opportunities that a closer relationship with India presents. I think that we should focus more on what I call economic diplomacy and should I take on the role of foreign minister at some time in the future I would be focusing on what I call economic diplomacy.”
Julie Bishop says the Coalition will release its foreign policy points in the months leading up to the federal election.
But she says the Coalition has already unveiled one of its key foreign policies, which is rooted in a decades-old Liberal Party education program that brought Asian students to study in Australia.
“We have already announced our plans to introduce a new Colombo scheme. That is a government-backed scholarship program to ensure that Australians attending university in this country get an opportunity to spend some time living and studying at a university in our region – a reverse of the Colombo plan that existed in the 1950s to the 1980s. I think our foreign policy should be directed towards cultivating friendly relations with our neighbours, promoting development and stability in our region, and encouraging peaceful economic and financial cooperation with countries in our region. I believe our new Colombo plan will give expression to that view.”
Bob Carr argues that in the area of foreign policy, the Coalition doesn’t appear to distinguish itself in any significant way.
“I’m not sure what foreign policies the coalition has and I think that one of the criticisms of the Coalition under the direction of Tony Abbott is a lack of detailed policies. I don’t think they’ve put any work, I don’t think that anyone would have any idea what foreign policy positions Tony Abbott would adopt were he to become prime minister.”
Julie Bishop says as Foreign Minister she would re-examine the government’s conduct towards WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who remains holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
The 41-year-old Australian has criticised the level of assistance being provided to him by the Gillard government as he fights extradition to Sweden to face questioning over alleged sex crimes.
He maintains his rights have been sacrificed in favour of Australia’s diplomatic relationship with the United States, which he says wants to prosecute him in connection with the work of his WikiLeaks website.
Julie Bishop says, if elected to office, she would take advice on whether anything should change in the government’s position towards Julian Assange.
“We have differed with the government in a number of respects, particulary when Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that Julian Assange was guilty of an illegal act. I took issue with that at the time for he has not been charged with any breach of laws in Australia and it was irresponsible for the prime minister to make such a prejudicial claim particularly given the circumstances he was in overseas. So, I would look at the matter carefully at the time, but in January 2013 it is hard to say what the situation will be at the time of the election, should we be privileged enough to be elected by the Australian people.”
To the question of whether foreign policy will play a deciding role in the 2013 federal election, Bob Carr says it’s too early to tell.
Julie Bishop says, although she can’t rule out the possibility, she believes the battle for votes will be won and lost on domestic issues.
That she says, is what the emphasis of the Coalition’s election campaign will be on.
“I think the major focus in the campaign will be on Australia’s economic performance on the government’s ability to manage the budget. It will invariably be on domestic issues, foreign policy plays a role, but I imagine that the next election will be focused on issues such as the government’s failure to produce a budget surplus, the cost of living, the carbon tax, the government’s failings in border protection, for example.”