It’s time to remember just what the existing foreign policy has delivered.  Since the 2003 White Paper, Advancing the National Interest, Australia has routinely undermined global norms. We have been at the forefront of breaking global commitments on military intervention, on the climate crisis and on development, to name just three. Highlights from the last thirteen years are sobering.


(i) Backing Illegal US Interventions

Australia has participated in US extra-judicial military interventions. Examples include Australia’s role in participating in and legitimising the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was defined as ‘illegal’ by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in September 2004, and with associated illegal renditions. The US-Australian surveillance facility at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, has been linked to more than 7,000 extrajudicial drone killings across non-combatant countries. The US justification for such attacks,‘outside of an active battlefield’, has been widely challenged, including by the Red Cross. Despite these concerns, Australia has become ever more closely aligned with the US military, including hosting a new ‘rotational’ base for 2,500 US Marines in Darwin.


(ii) Promoting Corporate Interests

Foreign policy has leveraged corporate power through extended ‘market access’ into poorer countries, along with rules that allow corporations to sue governments for reduced profits. Examples include bilateral and multilateral trade and investment agreements such as the US Free Trade Agreement (USFTA), Trans-Pacific Partner- ship, and the Pacific ‘PACER+’ agreement, all designed to sidestep opposition from poorer countries at the World Trade Organisation.


(iii) Undermining Climate Policy

Australia’s record on global climate policy is derisory – it is less a laggard than a wrecker. The World Bank states the climate crisis is reversing development on a global scale.  Yet since 2003 Australia has had the one of the lowest emissions reductions targets amongst industrialized countries, and has tried to ‘offset’ its responsibilities onto poorer countries.10 At home,  Australia digs the hole deeper – promoting ‘clean coal’ while subsidising coal and gas for export. Australia now exports double the emissions it burns at home.


(iv) Negating Democracy and Self-determination

Australia consistently supports authoritarian allies. It has a ‘friendly and substantive relationship’ with Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and close military ally of the US. It is one of the very few major powers refusing to condemn Israeli state violations of international norms, and has even criticised US abstention on the issue. Meanwhile, Australia’s regional policies negate hu- man and development rights, from grabbing East Timor’s oil, to ignoring human rights abuses in West Papua.


(v) Promoting Financial Rule

At the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Australia promotes finance markets as the cure-all, fueling debt and speculation and stoking the global food crisis. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis Australia the Reserve Bank resisted effective financial regulation, instead arguing for ‘avoiding undue regulatory burden’, emphasising ‘transparency’.16 Meanwhile, Australia’s export credit agency, the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC), continues to create new potential liabilities for low-income countries, mainly on behalf of Australian mining and energy corporations.17


(vi) Attacking Refugees and Asylum-seekers

Australia’s refugee policies, established since before 2003, directly conflict with and undermine global norms on the right to protection from persecution. Its bipartisan policy of deterrence by detention has been likened to a form of kidnapping and forced exile. The logic of deterrence enables the denial of basic rights and creates extralegal status for semi-permanent encampments. Australia’s abuses encourage copy-cat actions, in a global bidding war to dehumanise and brutalise refugees and asylum-seekers.


(vii) Discrediting Overseas Aid

Australian overseas aid now primarily serves the national interest rather than development outcomes, and is no longer linked to UN targets.22 It has been renamed ‘aid investment’, not ‘development assistance’. Aid is no longer distributed by an agency with a development man- date, and has been redirected to support private sector players and narrow security priorities. It is at its lowest level since the 1970s, it greases ‘economic diplomacy’ and is losing public support.

These and other foreign policy failures demonstrate the logic of pursuing naked ‘self-interest’ at DFAT.  Instead, Australia should focus on making the world a safer place through collective and non-nuclear security arrangements. Pursuing fair trade arrangements that benefit people, not just corporate interests. Becoming an exemplar of effective climate policy, both in international policy and at home. A beacon for democratisation and self-determination, and enabling development rights, not financial freedoms for speculators. Respecting human rights in all its dealings including the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. And a country that recommits to global targets for development aid by focusing Australian aid on addressing local needs, not Australian interests.

A foreign policy guided by such principles would take Australia closer to achieving the goals of peace and security that it claims should be our uppermost priority. For this, a root and branch rethink of Australian foreign policy is required. We can only speculate whether this is happening in Canberra this week.

Prepared by James Goodman, AID/WATCH Chair





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