Australia’s ambassadors are meeting behind closed doors in Canberra this week, to discuss the Government’s proposed new direction on foreign policy. While paying more than a $1 million on talking to their ambassadors. There have been two months of by-invitation DFAT ‘consultations’, and a public ‘submission’ process for the White Paper on the basis of the most minimal information.
DFAT provided a one-page series of questions for the public, with not very useful statements like ‘Australia’s foreign policy needs to be grounded in a clear-eyed assessment of our national interests’. There was no background paper to help the public understand the issues, in contrast with the Department of Defence, which produced a 51-page ‘Issues Paper’ to inform its White Paper process in 2014. If we were still emboldened to comment on Australia’s foreign policy, there is precious little for us to work on. Independently accessing information on DFAT strategic policy is nigh impossible. Detail on Australia’s aid, for instance, is now folded into DFATs ‘economic diplomacy’, limited to one-line tender documentation.
And we can get little insight from Freedom of In- formation requests – DFAT grants less than a fifth of FoI requests in full. Official leaks though, can be a reliable source: this avenue is how, for instance, Australians learnt that DFAT was promoting investor-state provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. To be fair, you could have put a (pre-vetted) question to the Foreign Minister at the online White Paper Facebook event (for 30 minutes on the 29th March).
Yet, if there was a time for a wide public debate on Australia’s foreign policy, then it is now. As the world changes around us, Australia has little strategy beyond pursuing its interests and clinging to the US alliance. There is evidence of internal disquiet. The 2014 internal ‘Capability Review’ of DFAT, conducted by the Australian Public Service Commission, offered a rare insight. DFAT strategy was found to be weak in outcomes, collaboration and common purpose; planning and prioritisation were also weak. While the language was muted, the message is clear – DFAT is rudderless.
The release, under Freedom of Information law, of an internal account of Australia’s involvement the Iraq is also highly revealing of the misuses and political manipulations in recent Australian foreign policy.
The Australian Army and the War in Iraq, authored by Dr Albert Palazzo, from the Directorate of Army Re- search and Analysis, confirms much of what has been said by external critics of Australia’s US-centred foreign policy. The full implications of the account are to be played out: equivalent to the 1971 US Pentagon Papers, the Palazzo Report should produce a full rethink of foreign policy, and prompt a full and open inquiry into what led Australia into the Iraq disaster.
Such an inquiry has been held in the UK, the Chilcott Inquiry, which was set up in 2009 ‘to identify lessons that could be learned from the Iraq conflict’. It reported in July 2016, and brought home important lessons for British foreign affairs. Unfortunately, the Australian Government, under both Coalition and Labor, has failed to be accountable both to history and to the public on the Iraq invasion, leaving open the possibility that mistakes will be repeated in future Trump-led US-aligned interventions.
The public is fully aware of the risks of a closer alliance with the US – the 2015 Lowy Poll, before the as- cent of the US Trump administration, found 57% were concerned the alliance could draw Australia into a Pacific war. The 2016 poll shows a fall in support for the US alliance – only 51% stated Australia should ‘remain close’ to Trump America, against 45% stating Australia should ‘distance itself’.
In this context, there is a clear effort to redeem the US alliance. Since the inauguration of President Trump senior figures has found it necessary to promote the US alliance, for the first time in many years. In February this year a former defence chief Angus Houston appeared at the National Press Club defending ANZUS, asserting the alliance was ‘bigger than Trump’, and the message was echoed with appearances across numerous new outlets (SMH, Australian, Sky).
There is precious little public support on other issues – the vast majority of Australians, for instance, are opposed to the use of overseas aid to promote national interests rather than address human needs. An ANU poll in 2014 showed that only 12% of the population supports the use of aid to promote Australian commercial or political interests; in contrast, 75% support for overseas aid geared to humanitarian objectives.11
There is a warning here for the Government. The 2016 Lowy Poll tracks a sharp decline since 2007 in the public perception of how well prime ministers ‘have handled our foreign policy’. Fifty-two percent thought Tony Abbott did a ‘poor job’, rivaled only by Julia Gillard, at a distant thirty-seven percent. Twenty-one percent think Malcolm Turnbull is doing a ‘poor job’, comparing with eight percent for Bob Hawke and fourteen percent for John Howard.12
The PM’s leadership capacity on foreign relations reflects a wide range of factors, but one of them is clearly the strategic (in)capacity of DFAT. There is a crisis of public faith in Australian foreign policy. But will the White Paper address these issues?
Prepared by James Goodman, AID/WATCH Chair
Download AID/WATCH’s Factsheet: THE DFAT FOREIGN POLICY WHITE PAPER