Howard's Foreign Policy Legacy


In her Freilich Foundation lectures in 2005, Carmen Lawrence argued that fear was a crucial factor in shaping Australian public policy under the Howard government. A recent book of specialist essays on foreign policy edited by Carl Ungerer, Australian Foreign Policy in the Age of Terror, illustrates her argument. The authors claim that "after 9/11, terrorism became a central and defining issue in Australia’s domestic policies and foreign relations" (my italics).

This collection of essays asks whether 9/11 and the ensuing ‘War on Terror’ "forced Australians to re-examine traditional assumptions about the use of force in the international system, the role of alliances, the importance of religion, and at the broadest level, Australia’s place and position in the world."

My answer is no. John Howard’s fearful "us and them" world, of selected bilateral friends and general threats, is now becoming a bad 12-year long memory. It takes an effort of imagination now to project ourselves back into that strange world. With Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, there is reason to hope that the Australian Government’s perception of the international agenda is changing in more expansive, less fearful directions. Rudd’s recent world tour put real runs on the board. To be a good international citizen and actively committed UN member has returned as a major aim of Australian foreign policy.

But are sections of the Australian foreign policy and national security bureaucracies still living, by force of habit, in a world mainly defined by fear? How much of the worldview so well analysed in Lawrence’s lectures still lingers in Canberra? And do Labor Ministers have any idea how to re-jig their departmental executives’ way of thinking towards the new direction Rudd is taking as Prime Minister?

It’s a little like turning the Titanic around. If there is not a great deal of deliberate hard steering from the bridge, the ship will stay comfortably on its old course.

Take, for example, a recent speech by the Minister for Immigration, Senator Chris Evans. In an otherwise humanitarian speech, sensitive to the human rights of persons caught up in migration and refugee determination issues, he said this on border security:

"The Government is committed to strong border security, tough anti-people smuggling measures and the orderly processing of migration to our country… This Government will continue to look at ways to prevent, deter and enforce compliance to preserve the integrity of Australia’s migration program, while treating individuals humanely."

Did Evans really understand what he was saying, or did he just uncritically accept a departmental draft? Does he understand that under Howard, terms like "strong border security" and "tough anti-people-smuggling measures" were policy cover under which the AFP and Immigration mounted questionable covert people smuggling disruption operations in Indonesia? Under which Defence intercepted boats and was in no hurry to rescue people at risk of drowning on crippled, sinking vessels?

It is easy to list the departments in which old national security thinking still prevails: Attorney-General’s (overseeing ASIO and the AFP), Defence, DFAT, and Immigration. Consider the way the Haneef and Hicks cases are being dragged out in the Attorney-General’s Department. Consider the prism of "terrorism" through which security issues in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines are still being seen – when the truth is that these are primarily local, inter-communal problems.

To confront the book’s gravest error: the most profound shock to Australian foreign policy was not 9/11, but our change of government five years earlier, which made multilateralism, good international citizenship and UN obligations "out" and bilateralism, assertive coalitions of the willing, and a more proactive approach to the US alliance "in". Foreign policy was to be hard-headed, about national interest and power. Security agencies were to play a much bigger role, and DFAT quickly had to learn to talk their language. The AFP became an active arm of foreign policy, on issues that the AFP would itself choose to be engaged: joint operations with South East Asian police forces on counterterrorism, drug-trafficking and people smuggling; and restoring civil order in the Solomon Islands.
By September 2001, this new way of doing Australian foreign policy was already well entrenched. Tampa, Defence’s Operation Relex, the AFP/Department of Immigration people-smuggling disruption program, and the Pacific Solution, all had a national security focus. And Australia’s anti-UN rhetoric, singing from Washington’s songbook, was underway well before 9/11.

Increasingly, Australian police and soldiers are doing the kind of work abroad that diplomats used to do. And our diplomats’ opportunities to make a real policy difference as diplomats seem to be shrinking.

DFAT’s top diplomats like Nick Warner, who went from being the political face of the Solomons operation to Secretary of Defence, now build careers as interchangeable national security generalists – another Howard legacy. But at the end of the day, will we still have top-class career diplomats? Does Prime Minister Rudd want to turn the new orthodoxy around, to restore the kind of capable and often inspired professional foreign policy style that Australia enjoyed before 1996? Or have he and his ministers become so used to national security agencies’ dominance of Australia’s foreign policy, that they can’t see how stultifying narrow and vision-limiting it is?

These questions are still unanswered. On border security, the war in Afghanistan, Defence strategic doctrine, regional and domestic counter-terrorism, South Pacific pol-mil interventionism, we still inhabit the politics of fear. It seems odd that while we are still in so many ways living in that world, Rudd seriously thinks we could be elected to a seat in the UN Security Council in 2012. He will be pushing uphill, I fear, unless he can bring about real cultural change at home.

Nor will it be easy to restore an open foreign policy public debate in Australia, in which liberal multilateralists and national security hard-hats could talk to one another again. Sadly, we operate now in ideologically defined intellectual silos. There is one kind of foreign policy debate that happens in places like, Eureka Street, and in a recent foreign policy colloquium at Manning Clark House in Canberra; and another kind that happens in national security institutes and think-tanks. And I fear that the latter still has the ear of government, and the money that goes with it, far more than the former.

As a great crime of mass murder and a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man, 9/11 was truly shocking. But while pursuing those responsible as major criminals, we also need to open dialogue with ideological enemies, try to understand and redress their political grievances. September 11 did not come out of a historical vacuum, as any reader of Robert Fisk’s writings on the Middle East knows.

Many of us are not persuaded by Huntington’s "clash of civilisations" thesis. The lesson in Northern Ireland was that IRA and Ulster Defence Force terror were best addressed as criminal law enforcement matters, and the underlying adversarial politics by patient multi-faceted diplomacy. It worked.

If Australian foreign policy can move towards recognising common humanity, not taking Christian-Islamic hostility as an unchangeable given, we can help make the world a better place.

It is still true, as Lawrence argued in 2005, that human betterment – not a War on Terror – should be a prime focus of Australian foreign policy. Can the Rudd Government start to make this shift, or will we continue wandering like lost souls through John Howard’s bleak national security wastelands?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.