[A full version of this article appears in The Round Table: Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs]
As argued at the beginning of this article, part of the reason for international interest in Australia’s leadership change is that Australia is a significant actor in international politics. Therefore, it is important to assess the international impact of the change. This involves reviewing some aspects of Australian foreign policy at the time of the leadership crisis, with a view to highlighting new developments (if any) that might occur.
Clearly one of the casualties of the change in Liberal leadership was Julie Bishop, not just as deputy leader of the Liberal Party but also as foreign minister. This is not to say that Australian foreign policy was simply the outcome of Bishop’s leadership as foreign minister, but she was a significant influence on the direction of government policy from 2013 to 2018. Along with Turnbull in particular, Bishop played a leading role in Australia’s adjustment to the new US administration under President Donald Trump from January 2017, maintaining key elements of the US security alliance while also making clear differences over issues such as the US not proceeding with the Trans Pacific Partnership. Tensions with China had come to the fore in the latter part of Bishop’s period in office (with Bishop not having visited China since February 2016). While China is Australia’s major trading partner (taking 33.2% of Australia’s exports in 2017 and providing 22.4% of imports, Australia has been critical of China’s stance on some issues such as the South China Sea and undue Chinese influence on some aspects of Australian domestic politics.
Bishop (again supported by Turnbull and Liberal moderates) had done well in maintaining Australia’s support for the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change; as the tensions within the Liberal Party on this issue indicate, in the ‘two level game’ involved for Australia, the domestic level can be just as difficult (if not more difficult) than the international level. While holding the line on climate change Bishop was less successful in opposing cuts to Australia’s foreign aid budget, with Australia’s commitment down to 0.23% of gross national income by 2017, nineteenth in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and well behind the United Kingdom on 0.7%. Refugee policy (including the ‘hard line’ on asylum seekers), while a matter for the government as a whole, was primarily administered by Dutton.
With Bishop’s demise as foreign minister, Marise Payne as her successor can be expected to follow a similar approach. Payne’s previous portfolio as defence minister might lead her to have stronger focus on the security dimension of foreign policy. Morrison as prime minister can be expected to focus on his domestic challenges, and is likely to be relatively ‘low key’ in relation to foreign policy. On issues such as foreign aid and refugees there is unlikely to be change. Given the internal tensions the Coalition is unlikely to prioritize climate change issues, with the political commitment becoming less than it was under Turnbull.
Much of the Turnbull–Bishop approach to Australian foreign policy would continue under a Labor government, including the attempts to differentiate among different elements of US policy under Trump as they affect Australia, and a cautious approach in relation to China. One can expect a stronger commitment from Labor to implementing the Paris agreement on climate change, an increase in Australian foreign aid, and some modification of policy concerning asylum seekers (although not a major reversal).
While Turnbull understandably praised Bishop as ‘Australia’s finest Foreign Minister’, Senator Penny Wong, the shadow foreign minister, was also very complimentary. Wong referred to Bishop’s ‘trailblazing role as the first Australian woman to be Minister for Foreign Affairs…dedicat[ing] her life to our nation with a tireless work ethic and exhausting travel schedule. While Labor has at times been critical of the foreign policy directions under Prime Ministers Abbott and Turnbull, Ms Bishop’s commitment to standing up for Australia both here and abroad has never been in question. In particular I have deeply appreciated her commitment to bipartisanship, and her personal courtesy to me’. This is indicative of a large measure of continuity in Australian foreign policy should Labor come to office.
Derek McDougall is with the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne.