Paul Keating’s famous statement, “if you change the government you change the country” is nowhere more apparent right now than in the foreign policy approach of the new Albanese government.
In just three weeks of a new government being sworn in, diplomacy has been restored to the centre of Australia’s international relations in the region. Australian defence minister Richard Marles’ recent meeting with his Chinese counterpart defence minister general Wei Fenghe in Singapore ended an almost three-year diplomatic freeze between senior officials from Canberra and Beijing.
But if history is anything to go by, this is the sort of outward-looking foreign and security policy we can and should expect from a Labor government – constructive engagement, incremental and strategic progress, all the while standing up to protect Australia’s national interests.
The foreign policy approach of previous Labor governments has been characterised by what former foreign minister Gareth Evans has coined as “being a good international citizen”.
The establishment of the Australian Development Assistance Agency under the Whitlam government demonstrated a push to increase Australia’s development assistance, foreign aid, and contribution to the region. Foreign policy under the Hawke and Keating governments changed the perception of Australia internationally, through the implementation of economic reforms and removal of tariffs to reverse Australia’s reputation as a protectionist trading nation. As Australia began looking outward, it created impactful regional engagement through the creation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and increased integration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), rendering Australia a more active international citizen.
Under Albanese and Wong, foreign policy is seeming to be driven by a continuum of Labor’s past active international approach: an Australia willing to take on an active and constructive role on global issues and maintain important regional and bilateral relationships. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the newly elected PM and foreign minister jumping on a plane a day after being sworn in to join three world leaders at the Quad, followed by a bilateral visit to Australia’s nearest neighbour Indonesia. But it was the delivery message of the government’s new tone on climate security that has sparked the region’s interests.
The previous government demonstrated lukewarm responses to global climate change commitments. As former prime minister Scott Morrison brandished a piece of coal in the House of Representatives, telling the parliament “this is coal, don’t be afraid”, Pacific Island neighbours looked on with anxiety and grew weary of our neglect on the most important issue facing the Pacific region.
One can only speculate over whether the China-Solomon Islands pact – justified by a senior figure in the Solomons government as being “necessary to maintaining its internal security and to helping fight climate change” – could have been avoided had the previous government paid more attention to the security of its neighbours, particularly its climate security.
Wong’s visit in recent days to the Solomons and to other Pacific Islands states in recent weeks to assure them the new Australian government ‘will stand shoulder to shoulder with our Pacific family’ and will be a partner ‘without strings attached’ nor be imposing financial burdens on development assistance is an overdue signal from Australia that it recognises and takes seriously the Pacific’s climate crisis and development concerns.
More importantly, it is the fact that there is a new foreign minister that is not just choosing to make the Pacific her first port of call but is actually listening to leaders. Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and the Solomon Islands and the rest of the Pacific must no doubt be buoyed by this new energy from Australia.
And prime minister Albanese’s recognition that climate change is not just about the environment but is about national and regional security and the shaping of our economies is something that was lost on the past government. Minister Penny Wong expressing during her visit to Fiji that “Australia hears its Pacific family” sets a tone of inclusiveness, respect, understanding and engagement that these small island states have been wanting to hear for nearly a decade.
Similarly, the government’s renewed focus on strengthening relations with Southeast Asia, committing to stronger engagement with ASEAN, including an increase in overseas development assistance and the creation of a Southeast Asia office increases its security reach. Defence minister Richard Marles’ meeting with his counterparts from Japan and India for bilateral meetings this week will further provide much need security ballast in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
No doubt Labor will have to walk the tightrope of navigating its alliance with the US and what is expected from it, whilst maintaining a degree of independence as a middle power in the region. But whilst the headwinds in the Indo-Pacific region remained shared by both nations, the Albanese government’s approach to making a significant effort to seek, as former prime minister Paul Keating called “security in Asia, not from Asia” through resetting diplomatic relations must be embraced. Drawing on the legacy of past Labor governments’ foreign policy approaches, including a commitment to shared democratic values, international, rules-based order and constructive engagement all with our national interest at heart, this reset is what is needed right now, more than ever.