Australia’s foreign policy today

Tanya Plibersek

H. V. Evatt was Prime Minister Curtin’s minister for External Affairs when Curtin made his famous appeal to the United States for help protecting Australia in December 1941, marking the beginning of the move away from sole reliance on Britain as the ‘great power’ which would protect us. After the war, Evatt recognised that, alongside our important new alliance with America, Australia should also be working with other small and medium powers to influence global issues.Evatt took us from a time where we would look first to one great power then another for our security, to being part of a global community which, critically, Australia helped to shape. 

Evatt knew that to address truly global challenges, Australia and indeed all countries need to be able to act within a global community. Evatt’s role in the negotiations at San Francisco to draft the charter for the United Nations established him as a world figure and won him many friends among smaller nations. This led to his selection in 1948 as president of the United Nations General Assembly. Evatt’s prodigious energy was noted by one of his staff at the time, Paul Hasluck – a critic who later became a Liberal Minister for External Affairs. Hasluck wrote this about Evatt’s efforts in the San Francisco negotiations:

Day after day for ten weeks from early morning until late at night his concentration on the task and the intensity of his efforts had a ferocity that made me wonder what strange demon had possessed him.

I think the demon was Evatt’s determination that Australia’s voice should be heard as the postwar order was being built. Evatt explained why smaller powers needed a bigger voice:

No power is so great that it can ignore the will of the peoples of the world expressed through the [United Nations] Assembly and no power is so small that it cannot contribute to the making of world opinion through the Assembly.

The overwhelming challenge for Evatt was to put in place the right measures to secure and support global peace. He knew that no country working alone could avert a repeat of the rivalry between major powers and the disastrous global conflict we saw in the first half of the 20th century. Evatt understood that, for Australia, it would be through our major alliances and through multilateral agreements and relationships that we would contribute to a more stable and peaceful world. 

Evatt helped build a world where the United Nations could provide an institutional framework for co-operation between countries to ensure peace. And the challenge of peace remains – we see the dangerous potential for conflict through unilateral actions today – despite the maturity of multilateral institutions. For the most part however, these institutions serve us well.

Post-Evatt Labor

Labor leaders and foreign ministers since Evatt have built on the tradition he helped create. Key parts of Whitlam’s foreign policy were in the Evatt mould –
• support for the US alliance; alongside
• a belief in the importance of multilateral institutions to maximise Australia’s interests and influence; and
• engagement with countries in the region, starting with the diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China.

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating also drew on Evatt’s legacy. The Hawke and Keating governments promoted Australia’s role as a middle power through multilateral forums such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, and in arms control negotiations. The Hawke government’s role in creating the Cairns Group was critical to boosting Australian exports through the successful Uruguay Round of trade talks. Another of Hawke’s big achievements was driving the creation, in 1989, of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum as a vehicle to boost trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific. Paul Keating went on to strengthen APEC with his successful campaign to elevate the annual APEC meetings to include a leaders’ forum from 1993. 

Critics sometimes complain when meetings such as these don’t produce big headlines and momentous decisions. But this misses the point. One benefit of such meetings is to improve personal understanding between leaders and other participants. The APEC leaders’ meeting of 1999 was of great benefit to Prime Minister John Howard as the East Timor crisis was escalating. Howard used the opportunity of the leaders’ meeting in Auckland to lobby for a peacekeeping mission to East Timor. This would have been much more difficult – perhaps impossible – if the countries had not all been gathered together for the leaders’ meeting. And Gareth Evans’ monumental success in Cambodia shows that backed up by the international community Australia can play a leading role in restoring peace.

Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard continued to strengthen regional engagement and gave energetic support for multilateral approaches to international issues, while maintaining strong support for the US alliance. Kevin Rudd was instrumental in seizing the opportunity of the G20 meeting to manage the global response to the GFC of 2008. The US Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, said Kevin Rudd ‘was relentless in his making of the case; he persuaded key players, [and] made the case with a number of players who were a bit reluctant’. This gave Australia an influential role in the response to the crisis. Until then, global economic decisions had been dominated by the G8 – a group that excluded not only Australia but critical players such as China and other emerging economies.

Evatt and his Labor successors pursued international partnership to support peace, nuclear disarmament, an end to colonialism in Indonesia, even, more recently, an end to so-called scientific whaling. Whatever frustrations come with the slowness inherent in using international bodies to achieve significant change, it is difficult to see how a country like Australia – number 51 in the world by population size – would have been able to have the influence we’ve had otherwise.

And just as peace in the 20th century was a challenge impossible to address without engagement in international fora, we face modern challenges that cannot be addressed by countries working on their own. One of these challenges is climate change. It is clear that we cannot tackle a problem as complex as climate change unless countries across the globe co-operate. Yet under the Howard Government Australia stood aloof.

When Labor was elected in 2007 we joined the global fight. Kevin Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol – the international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is a great example of using a multilateral institution to tackle global problems. But now the Coalition is back, and to the consternation of many Australians, and indeed governments around the world, retreating from action on climate change. This isn’t just an abstract issue; here in the Blue Mountains you know too well the impact of extraordinary weather events on the lives and livelihoods of your community.

And for some of our neighbours climate change has imminent and potentially devastating consequences. Kiribati’s President has predicted his country is likely to become uninhabitable within decades because of inundation, and contamination of its fresh water supplies. And the recent floods in the Solomon Islands following an extraordinary weather event have tragically claimed 23 lives and left 9000 people homeless. Of course, fires and floods happened before climate change was an issue, but the frequency and severity of these extreme events will continue to increase unless we take substantial action now, and as the world’s largest per capita emitters of carbon pollution we must be involved in the global effort to slow global warming.

Poverty & inequality

Another global challenge which requires concerted action is poverty. Australia is one of 189 countries that signed up to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a shared world vision for reducing poverty. The MDGs aim to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than US$1.25 a day by 2015 relative to 1990. The MDGs create a collective responsibility of all UN member countries to meet the goals and targets set out in the declaration by 2015.

Australia has played a role in this international multilateral effort by being generous in funding international aid. As opposition leader in 2007, Kevin Rudd committed a Labor government to doubling the Australian aid budget to 0.5 per cent of GNI (Gross National Income), or around $8 billion a year. At that time, the Coalition was spending $2.9 billion a year on aid. Between 2007 and 2013 Labor almost doubled the aid program to $5.7 billion – despite the tough budgetary environment. Why? Because it reflected our values – to support sustainable development, share the benefits of prosperity, and reduce poverty and inequality.

We recognise and embrace the benefits of contributing to global social and economic development and as a global community we’ve made significant progress on the MDGs, although of course significant challenges remain. Unfortunately, just a couple of days out from the election the Coalition announced cuts of $4.5 billion from Australia’s aid program over the next four years. The Prime Minister has recently confirmed a further $12 billion will be cut from Labor’s forward commitments on aid funding, over the three years from 2017–18.

The Abbott Government has also dismantled Australia’s specialist aid agency, AusAID, which has been delivering a globally recognised and effective aid program for almost four decades. And the government has narrowed the outcomes for the aid program. It has removed references to poverty reduction and sustainable development in favour of ‘advancing Australia's international strategic, security and economic interests’.

The government is making decisions about funding and priorities for the aid program by asking ‘What’s in it for us?’ This is happening at a crucial time in global efforts on poverty reduction. Right now the UN is developing a new framework to replace the MDGs when they expire in 2015. The OECD is clear that the challenge of addressing global poverty remains – and the post-2015 framework will rely on both an effective global partnership and an adequate volume of aid funding.

There is a very pragmatic answer to ‘What’s in it for us?’ with Australian aid. Countries we used to give aid to have become middle income countries and important trade partners for us; our health aid has reduced the spread of illnesses which potentially threaten Australia. But our aid program is also a reflection of our ability, as the 12th largest economy in the world, to do our share to lift others out of poverty. It is a reflection of our values. It means real progress for real people. The government’s decisions have consequences for our neighbours. What did we achieve with our increased aid funding and our expertise? 

In PNG we:

• provided essential medical supplies to more than 2000 hospitals, health centres and aid posts;
• improved support for around 20,000 victims of sexual and family violence;
• reduced, in just one year, the mortality rate for drug-resistant TB in Western Province from 25 per cent to just 5 per cent;
• supported the abolition of school fees for the first three grades of school;
• delivered 1.6 million textbooks to 3500 schools across the country; and
• fixed over 12,800 kilometres of rural roads.

In Afghanistan we have supported:

• increases in school enrolments from around 1 million in 2001 to more than 8 million in 2013, including over 3 million girls;
• training for 3400 teachers;
• immunisation of 428,000 children against polio;
• family planning, antenatal care, postnatal care and vaccination for over 300,000 women;
• improved maternal health care, with at least 74 per cent of pregnant women now receiving at least one antenatal health care visit; and
• an increase in the number of births attended by skilled attendants from 24 per cent in 2007 to 39 per cent in 2012.

In Cambodia:

• In 2011, 5000 square metres of community and leasehold land was cleared of landmines and unexploded ordinance, benefiting more than 40,000 people;
• Since 2007, 2100 classrooms have been built or repaired, allowing more children to go to school and learn in better and safer conditions; and
• We provided training in HIV and human trafficking for at-risk communities.

In Timor-Leste we:

• helped over 30,000 farmers grow improved varieties of crops with yield increases of between 20 per cent and 80 per cent; and
• assisted more than 77,000 people to access safe water and 67,000 people to access basic sanitation facilities.

Labor’s commitments on aid funding reflected Australia as a mature and compassionate country. Equally, the Coalition’s cuts to aid are a reflection of its values. The Coalition Government has narrowed the focus of its aid budget, an approach it calls an ‘aid for trade’. Promoting trade in developing countries through aid is an important goal – but not at the expense of poverty reduction.

When we improved the security in PNG markets for PNG women, that meant a degree of economic independence, as they could safely sell their wares; it meant family income which could be spent on educating children. Of course economic development is important in poverty reduction. But aid should not be a back door way of buying market access. Increased trade with developing economies has to be part of a long game. It starts with reducing disadvantage and poverty and increasing the wellbeing and capacity of the community, promoting good governance and corruption resistance.

Reducing poverty and inequality is morally good, but it’s also economically sensible. There is growing evidence, including from the OECD and the IMF, that shows that inequality reduces economic growth. Reducing disadvantage and poverty is a good in and of itself, and must be a focus – particularly for those countries, like ours, that can easily afford to lend a hand. And it must continue to be the focus of the international efforts that will be marshalled in the post-2015 MDGs.

Conclusion

There are plenty of opportunities for bi-partisanship in foreign affairs. But there are important differences. Labor is not starry-eyed, but we do take a forward-looking, optimistic view of the benefits of multilateral co-operation. We take a broader view of the ways we can protect and advance Australia’s interests. And we take a more generous view of the role we should play to help those who need a hand up. Successful foreign policy mixes pragmatism and idealism, realism and liberalism. Of course states will act to maximise their own interests, and material power matters. But that’s not the end of our responsibilities, nor the end of our possibilities. States can and do co-operate. Institutions to promote co-operation and international law help that process.

The world has changed a great deal in the six decades since Bert Evatt was Minister for External Affairs. But the principles behind the foreign policy tradition he helped create remain a powerful example today. Labor values our strong relationship with the United States – and it is not surprising that we agree on most issues. But we also believe that a key test of friendship is being frank when you disagree, as Labor disagreed about the US-led war in Iraq in 2003. 

Labor believes that our alliances and our strong relationships with our nearest neighbours and economic partners are critical to our security and prosperity. We are in the Asian century and Australia is ideally placed to reap the advantages of that.

Labor believes many of the big challenges of the world are best handled multilaterally, and that Australia can have a role and at times can lead those efforts. That’s why we pursued Security Council membership. That’s why we helped make the G20, rather than the G8, the pre-eminent body for tackling the global financial crisis. Bert Evatt exemplified these beliefs, and showed how Australia can maximise its influence by being a constructive neighbour and a generous and collaborative global citizen.


Tanya Plibersek is the Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development. This is the text of her H. V. Evatt Memorial Lecture presented at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba on 14 April. 


 

 

Suggested citation
Plibersek, Tanya, 'Australia’s foreign policy today', Evatt Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2, April 2014.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/australias-foreign-policy-today.html>