If the coming election goes to Australia’s Labor party, Penny Wong is very likely to become Foreign Minister. So when she speaks, people across the region prick up their ears.
Without the least disrespect to her recent forebears, she could be one of the most acute, incisive and insightful FMs in recent history.
Whether she’ll be any more effective than them is another matter.
Australia has a long tradition of placing prominent front-benchers into the role, and then pointedly ignoring their efforts, their advice and their warnings. It’s as if government leaders find their greatest rival and send them trotting off around the globe, more to keep them from making mischief at home than to achieve anything noteworthy while they’re gone.
In Australia, it seems, foreign policy is domestic policy done outdoors.
If she achieves nothing more, Ms Wong would be well served to look closely at the people supporting her, and to spend considerable effort re-organising and in fact re-inventing DFAT. Its disconnection from other departments, especially Defence and PMO, has created an internal culture that spends more time feeding on itself than actually helping produce a persuasive or coherent foreign policy.
Ensuring foreign policy’s primacy at the cabinet table is a big ask, but it will be for naught if the department can’t deliver. There are significant structural matters to be dealt with.
Rolling development and aid into the department was a significant regression that hampered both sides. Volumes can be written about the need to distinguish development assistance from foreign policy, and many of them could be focused on the Pacific islands region.
The two are mostly complementary (mostly), but they must also be discrete from one another.
It’s far more complicated than this, but suffice it to say that development aid prioritises the recipient’s needs, while foreign relations generally prioritise national concerns. The moment you invert either side of that equation, you lose.
Exempli gratia: Solomon Islands.
It’s well known that Australia spent billions shoring up Solomon Islands’ security and administrative capacity. Surely after all that aid, they can expect the government to stay onside in geopolitical matters?
Applying the admittedly simplistic filter from the para above, the answer is an obvious no. Aid is not a substitute for actual foreign relations, and foreign relations is definitely not just aid.
So is Penny Wong correct when she calls the CN/SI defence agreement a massive strategic setback? Sure.
Is she right to call Pacific Affairs minister Zed Seselja ‘a junior woodchuck’, sent in a last minute attempt to dissuade Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare from signing the agreement?
The idea of a minister responsible for the complex, wildly diverse patchwork of nations spanning such a vast space has value. But in terms of resources and policy heft, Seselja rides at the back of the posse on a mule.
There are good reasons to devote an entire office to Pacific affairs. There are also blindingly good reasons to keep the Foreign Minister as the primary point of contact on matters of foreign policy.
That means the role—and yes, the existence—of the Pacific Affairs ministry needs a ground-up reconsideration. Notionally, it fulfills a critical role. But how?
It’s fair to say that Ms Wong is more insightful than those who describe Solomon Islands as a fly-speck in the Pacific
, or a Little Cuba
(whatever the F that means). But in the past, Labor’s shown little insight into the actual value and purpose of foreign policy. For the better part of four decades, neither Australian party was fussed at all about the fact that there had been few if any official visits between leaders. Prime Ministers regularly blew off Pacific Islands Forum meetings.
In Vanuatu’s case, the first ever prime ministerial visit to Canberra was in 2018.
Why aren’t such meetings annual events?
Australia is rightly proud of its pre-eminence in development assistance in the Pacific islands. But that never was, and never will be, a substitute for diplomatic engagement. And you can’t have that without a functioning diplomatic corps whose presence is felt equally in Canberra and in foreign capitals.
But even that’s not enough. Penny Wong has yet to show in concrete terms how she plans to address what could accurately be called the greatest strategic foreign policy failure since WWII: Leaving Australia alone to guard the shop.
In 2003, George W. Bush was rightly vilified for characterising Australia’s role in the region as America’s Sheriff.