‘DFAT needs clearer political leadership’: Shadow minister argues for central foreign policy role

By Jackson Graham

Tuesday November 23, 2021

Penny Wong
Penny Wong argues DFAT is experiencing a lack of leadership. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Federal ministers are engaging in “the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history” by “amping up” the possibility of war with China, Labor’s Penny Wong says. 

Wong, the opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, warned foreign policy is not “merely a stage for photo ops” while outlining Labor’s approach to international dealings as assuming “a more central role”. 

In a speech today at the ANU National Security College, Wong will argue the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is experiencing a lack of leadership. 

Our foreign service has many talented, skilled people, but they have been hampered by a lack of leadership, degraded resources, and a lack of clarity of how they are expected to deliver,” Wong says. 

“DFAT needs clearer political leadership and a sharper understanding of its role, responsibilities, and its potential in these times.” 

She argues that the department requires Australia’s development assistance program to be rebuilt, greater multilateral capability and a clear government mandate “based on our domestic priorities to prosecute these interests abroad”. 

She reaffirms that Labor supports the AUKUS submarine deal, but highlights Australia needs to ensure compliance with its nuclear non-proliferation commitments and double down on efforts towards disarmament. 

Wong says the government should appoint an ambassador for arms control and counter-proliferation.

Defence minister Peter Dutton earlier this month said it was “inconceivable” that Australia wouldn’t back the US in a war with China over Taiwan. 

But Wong said Dutton’s comments were “wildly out of step” with a policy of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan that both aligns with the bipartisan adoption of a ‘One China’ policy while leaving a definitive position on military conflict undeclared. 

“It has been widely reported that the Morrison government want to make national security a focus of the coming election,” she said.

“Amping up the prospect of war against a superpower is the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history.

“A tactic employed by irresponsible politicians who are desperate to hang on to power at any cost.”

Wong also advocated for more regional engagement through Australia’s alignment with the South East Asian Economic Alliance (ASEAN). 

“We will appoint an ASEAN Special Envoy – a roving high-level representative, respected in the region, to complement our diplomatic network, and forge close relationships with capitals,” she said. 

“The countries of Southeast Asia have made clear they don’t want to choose between the great powers – but they want to exercise their own agency in how the region is being reshaped.

“And it’s why I and many others have advocated for a settling point in the escalating strategic competition between the US and China – one that is favourable to the region and that upholds the rules of the road.” 

Wong will argue that Australia’s foreign policy is “disturbingly underutilised” and she lays out how she would readjust it through projecting modern Australia abroad, fostering partnerships with trust, and enhancing capability by navigating international relations.


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