Election 2022: Wong’s capability ambitions for DFAT go beyond strategic power

By Melissa Coade

May 16, 2022

Penny Wong-Marise Payne
Federal foreign affairs minister Marise Payne and shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong debate at the National Press Club in Canberra on Friday.(AAP Image/Jane Dempster)

Labor’s Penny Wong has said Australia must get better at integrating the different aspects of state power, which includes improved coordination of government agencies, underscoring her view that the playbook of past decades has served its time. 

Squaring off with Marise Payne during the National Press Club’s foreign affairs election debate on Friday, Wong said Australia’s approach to foreign affairs needed to adapt to the unprecedented times. This included greater capability within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and enhancing the nation’s strategic power capability by the other elements of state power.

“It isn’t business as usual — we face very different circumstances at any time since the end of WWII,” Wong said in response to a question about whether there were any institutional barriers within DFAT or government agencies to achieving effective foreign policy.

“The proposition that the world is changing and our region is being reshaped has to be our laser-like focus across government. We have to ensure we have the capacity and leadership to respond and deal with it,” she added. 

According to Payne, removing institutional barriers between the key national security agencies was ‘essential’. She pointed to approaches to seeing these barriers cleared, such as interdepartmental engagement committees that were used to develop whole-of-government responses to critical issues. 

“[These approaches] ensure that when that table is prepared, DFAT, Defence, Home Affairs and other key agencies are sitting around it,” Senator Payne said. 

The foreign minister said increases to DFAT’s operational budget over the forward estimates and the decision to open new Australian posts in key locations were also ‘good indicators’ of investment in the department.

“I’m pleased to see that the operating budget of DFAT has increased from around $2 billion between the last financial year to $2.2 billion in this financial year, and that we will see $3 billion of additional funding to DFAT through to 2025-26,” she said. 

In answer to a question from The Mandarin about resourcing the department with a view to improving Australia’s relationship with the Pacific, Wong confirmed a Labor government would appoint an Australian ambassador for climate change. Payne suggested the current ambassador for the environment, a post held by DFAT official Jamie Isbister, was ‘very effective’ in representing Australia’s interests concerning climate change.

Both politicians expressed support for a proposal to bid for the UN’s 2024 COP in partnership with Pacific nations.

“Our engagement with our Pacific neighbours on climate matters greatly,” Wong said. 

Payne, taking a more gracious stance on the idea outlined by the Australia Institute to bolster Australia’s regional and global reputation than her colleague energy minister Angus Taylor this month, said it was something worth considering.

“In relation to whether or not we would host a COP, we would speak with our Pacific neighbours, of course, as to their ambitions and their interests and determine whether it was something they wish to pursue,” she said. 

Payne and Wong addressed the press club in Canberra as part of a special election debate on foreign affairs on Friday. That same day, defence minister Peter Dutton announced a Chinese spy ship was known to be sailing within Australia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the north-west coast. The People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) vessel called Haiwangxing crossed into the EEZ a week earlier on 6 May. It traveled south, past Exmouth, for two days, and then turned around to travel north on 10 May. 

“I think it is an aggressive act – and I think particularly because it has come so far south,” Dutton said of the Chinese ship’s movements. 

Australia’s fractious relationship with Beijing was a dominant theme of the debate, canvassing the impact of Australia’s close ties to the US, human rights abuses in China, the Indo-Pacific, as well as Australia’s broader strategic and economic alliances. 

Wong said it was important for Australia to not be distracted by competition between so-called great powers and consider what kind of region and rules will advance and protect the nation’s interests. 

“That means working with the US, which remains the indispensable partner in the reshaping of the region, but it means working also with other partners, and other relationships. That means doing more in Southeast Asia, and doing a great deal more in the Pacific,” Wong said.

Payne also underscored Australia’s alliance with the US as being ‘foundational’ to the foreign policy approach in the Indo-Pacific region. However, she added being able to continue to pursue key relationships with countries such as China was also important.

The foreign minister went on to warn ‘high volume’ academic and media discourse about the implications of China’s relationship with countries in the region risked intimidating Australia’s pacific neighbours

“On the question of strategic choice, I think it’s very important to reinforce [that] Australia has no expectations, and is not making any indication to any other of our partners or any countries in the region that they will be forced into making choices,” Payne said, alluding to a recent security pact between the Solomon Islands and China

“Australia’s expectation is that they will always be sovereign nations who will make their own decisions,” she said. 

Wong asked Payne to clarify what the Morrison government knew about the security pact before the deal made headlines, to which the minister said it came to light when the document was leaked on social media. Australia’s concerns about Beijing’s plans to have a bigger security presence in the Indo-Pacific have been long standing, she added, and escalated when the Solomon Islands changed its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan to China. 

“That has evoked a much more forward-leaning, assertive effort by China in relation to security engagement in the region,” Payne said.

“That is not just confined to the Solomon Islands, it goes to other countries throughout the region as well. It goes to concerns that are raised around the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) table from time to time in relation to sovereignty and the implications of a non-Pacific partner or member being in security-delivering this position.”

Across the Pacific, Australia is the only country in the world which has a diplomatic mission in every member country of the PIF. Wong said despite Australia’s history and institutional ties in the region, a failure to engage ‘enough’ had resulted in other countries like China filling the diplomatic ‘vacuum’.

“We have not done enough. We have also gone missing on climate,” Wong said. 

Under a new Labor government, Wong also announced a First Nations foreign policy and the appointment of a First Nations ambassador.


READ MORE:

China’s ambassador to Australia meets Penny Wong to discuss bilateral relations

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