Tanya Plibersek’s Foreign Policy Evolution: Idealistic ALP Firebrand To Cynical Apparatchik


Having examined the Coalition’s warmongering propaganda in my last article, I thought this time I’d turn to the Australian Labor Party’s sorry record of opposition-free opposition. As we will see, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek, has little interest in opposing Coalition policy on the Middle East. She hasn’t yet embraced the Coalition’s policy of expanding the war on Iraq to Syria too, but it’s likely Plibersek will climb aboard soon enough.

Once upon a time, Plibersek presented as a left-wing Labor backbencher. In 2003, she presented Condoleezza Rice with a letter opposing the war on Iraq. In September 2002, she also gave a somewhat fiery speech in parliament opposing the march to war. She noted the immense suffering and deaths caused by the sanctions since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. She quoted from Pakistani Marxist Tariq Ali’s Clash of Fundamentalisms, and savagely condemned the foreign policy of the US.

Plibersek called the US “hypocritical” for condemning Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, because “none” of its Arab allies are democratic. Plibersek observed that the US has “conveniently forgotten” that the “regimes it has installed and supported the Pinochet regime in Chile, to name but one—have abducted and murdered citizens of their own. The US has ignored the ethnic cleansing carried out by Turkey against the Kurds. In fact, Turkey is a valued member of NATO and a likely starter for the European Union. The US and most European countries were great supporters of the Suharto regime which was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens.”

The part of Plibersek’s speech that caused the most commotion went as follows:

“I can think of a rogue state which consistently ignores UN resolutions, whose ruler is a war criminal responsible for the massacres of civilians in refugee camps outside its borders. The US supports and funds this country. This year it gave it a blank cheque to continue its repression of its enemies. It uses US military hardware to bulldoze homes and kill civilians. It is called Israel, and the war criminal is Ariel Sharon. Needless to say, the US does not mention the UN resolutions that Israel has ignored for 30 years; it just continues sending the money.”

She went on to condemn Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for being “sources of funding and venues for teaching terrorism”.

While not quite using the word “imperialism”, the factual record Plibersek reviewed was not particularly different to what would have been reviewed by Tariq Ali, or for that matter, John Pilger.

But that was when Plibersek was a backbencher, and Plibersek is an ambitious politician. She has risen to the Deputy Leadership of the Federal ALP, and that can’t be done without a strong dose of cynicism and a generous serving of abandoned principles. The first step was reassuring the major Jewish organisations that she would not say similar things about Israel in the future.

In October 2013, Plibersek as Deputy Leader of the Opposition decided to take on the Foreign Affairs portfolio. The Australian observed that the “influential Jewish lobby” was “expected to criticise” this appointment. However, she had publicly described her earlier statements about Israel as injudicious, which was not quite a public recantation, but gave notice of her intended reconciliation with the holy state.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the national representative body for Australian Jews, responded that Plibersek’s comments were “no longer an issue”.

“People’s views do change as we are confident Tanya Plibersek’s have. We look forward to working with her or any of her colleagues who are appointed to the shadow foreign affairs portfolio,” ECAJ observed. Meaning: they knew that Plibersek had seen the light, and they wouldn’t have any more problems from her.

Having made nice with the major Jewish organisations, Plibersek offered her “condolences” in parliament in February 2014 over the death of the Israeli war criminal she had so harshly criticised in 2002. Prudently avoiding any references to massacres, bulldozers or killing civilians, she claimed that during his prime ministership, Sharon made a “courageous stand” towards a “two-state solution in the peace process” – a claim she probably knew was preposterous nonsense. Plibersek claimed that his “entire adult life” was “dedicated” to ensuring Israel’s “very existence” – a rather creative interpretation of his 1982 invasion of Lebanon and long record of war crimes.

When Christopher Pyne responded by pointedly doubting how heartfelt Plibersek’s remarks were, Plibersek announced that she was “personally offended”. How dare anyone doubt Plibersek’s devastation over the death of Ariel Sharon.

In November 2013, as the Coalition voted against condemning Israeli settlements, Plibersek had the chance to show off her new devotion to the Israeli government. Questioned by Barrie Cassidy, she complained that the government hadn’t explained why they had changed their vote. Cassidy tried to find out if she also supported settlements. The closest Plibersek got to responding was stating that “the unlimited building of settlements in land that is considered Palestinian land is not helping with the peace process.” Which is about as hedged and mild as one can get. Plibersek explicitly declined to get into a “long historic debate” over whether it was okay to build settlements in the West Bank.

Plibersek also issued a tepid media release on Australia’s new position on settlements. She complained of a lack of “consultation”, and then that  “the expansion of settlements outside areas that will clearly remain part of Israel under a territorial exchange agreement undermines the prospect of a lasting peace through a two state solution.” The hedging is significant – which areas will clearly remain part of Israel? – and effectively legitimises the building of some settlements. It seems like Plibersek now supports the expansion of the major settlement blocs. Which is quite the odyssey.

At the ALP conference, when the ALP adopted a new resolution, suggesting a move towards a slightly less obsequious position on Israel, Plibersek apparently managed to get through the affair without any public position on the matter. When Bill Shorten was asked a few months earlier what he thought about the ALP’s position on Palestine, Plibersek solemnly explained that “I don’t think today is a day for these other questions”.

Whilst Plibersek avoided any public association in the controversy over the ALP’s position on Palestine, she led the Left faction at the ALP conference in attempting to amend the ALP’s platform “so that MPs would be forced to vote in favour of same-sex marriage in Parliament.”

Like her stance on Palestine, Plibersek was also in “witness protection” on the question of asylum seeker policy. Plibersek declined to join those in the ALP who wanted it to oppose turning back the boats of asylum seekers.

An anonymous Plibersek supporter claimed that this was because “as deputy the need for solidarity has been at the top of her mind”. Apparently, this need for solidarity didn’t apply with the gay marriage issue. Though Plibersek used a proxy to vote against turning back asylum seeker boats, Senator Kim Carr claimed Plibersek actually supported Shorten’s position on turning back boats.

Which brings us to Plibersek’s new faith in American wars of liberation. Where once Plibersek denounced the “hypocrisy and self-interest of US foreign policy” as among the many reasons she opposed “Australian involvement in any war on Iraq”, now she has faith in the US and Australia to liberate the Iraqis from Daesh. Any less, Plibersek argued in September last year, “could condemn innocent Iraqis to the same fate as the 800,000 Rwandans brutally murdered in just 100 days, two decades ago.”

Yet Plibersek does “not support the deployment of Australian ground combat units to directly engage in fighting IS.” So we’re going to prevent a genocide like Rwanda, unless it puts Australians at risk, even though it is unlikely our military deployment will have much effect on the fighting, let alone a decisive impact.

Considering her repeated invocation of Rwanda, it’s worth reviewing the historical record briefly, without considering the role of the West in fostering the ethnic hatred and other underlying conditions necessary for the genocide. In Rwanda, the Arusha peace agreement was signed in 1993. A United Nations peacekeeping force was sent to Rwanda, but the US, with UK and Russian support watered down its mandate. Once the genocide began and the white expatriates had been evacuated, the US, UK and Belgium tried to withdraw the peacekeepers, before settling on reducing the numbers of the peacekeeping force, authorising a reduced number of 270 for the entire country. The leader of the UN mission sought at least 5,000 peacekeepers for the whole country, and several African countries offered to provide the necessary troops, on condition that the costs of equipment for their troops be provided for by the UN. The Western states with the means to provide such funds refused to do so.

Even with this briefest of sketches, the problem of Rwanda was not that the West failed to invade a foreign country. It was that the West did not have any interest in preventing the mass slaughter of innocent people, and helped to prevent efforts to prevent or even just reduce the genocide. Which is why it is hard to credit Plibersek as being any less hypocritical than the US government she so passionately denounced back in the day.

Returning to her article, she claims “Australia’s military involvement in Iraq should continue only as long as is necessary to place the Iraqi government and its forces in a position to take full and effective responsibility for their own security.” Yet, as Barry Posen, the Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and director of MIT’s Security Studies Program observed, “the ‘Iraqi Army’ no longer exists.” Shi’ite militias have succeeded where the Iraqi army has failed in confronting Daesh in Iraq. This has led to Iran becoming the most important country in defending Iraq from Daesh.

Plibersek first expressed her mild opposition to war on Syria last year. She wrote: “Labor does not support taking action in Syria similar to that being taken in Iraq. There is no clear evidence that such Australian involvement could successfully provide relief to the humanitarian crisis that is occurring in Syria. It’s not clear which of the forces on the ground we could support. And there is no clear international support or authority for that kind of action.” Which is true, but if Daesh is a genocidal force in Iraq, why isn’t it a genocidal force in Syria? If we can’t just stand by and watch other people resist Daesh in Iraq, why can we stand by and watch other people resist Daesh in Syria?

This opposition seemed temporary and unreliable. On August 15 this year, as Abbott publicly pretended to consider whether he’d join the attack on Syria, Plibersek wrote a new article.

Like her previous position on settlements in the West Bank, Plibersek’s primary concern about expanding our war effort is that the Liberals hadn’t personally explained to her why, and so she apparently had no way of figuring out what her position should be. She wrote “There are many serious questions that remain unanswered. What would Australia’s strategic objectives be, and what has changed to necessitate our involvement? What would our role be – airstrikes only, troops on the ground, or something else? What would success look like? Is this the best way Australia can help solve the crisis in Syria? Is there a sound legal basis for Australian involvement in Syria?”

As foreign affairs spokesperson, she could presumably provide her own answers to at least some of these questions. She could, for example, form her own opinions about whether war on Syria is a good idea, or if it was legal under international law. Yet instead, Plibersek’s primary concern has been to criticise the Coalition for their procedural disrespect. I suspect she will soon move from tepid opposition to falling in line with the US war. By 21 August, Plibersek’s position had morphed into an open consideration of war on Syria:

STEFANOVIC: You’re not saying we shouldn’t be dropping bombs.
PLIBERSEK: It’s not either or. We do need to have a strong military response to this organisation that doesn’t exempt us from also helping the victims of the organisation.

Then on 28 August, she showed her moral sympathy for war on Syria

KELLY: Do you accept there is sufficient moral justification for extending the mission into Syria to prevent mass atrocities?
PLIBERSEK: I certainly accept that we have a humanitarian obligation to the people of Syria.”


Plibersek expressed reservations about consulting with Iran about our new war. Yet with her public posture of having no idea about how to address any of these issues without the Abbott government, it is not clear if she would actually pursue a different policy if she were in power herself.

As Plibersek may nurse hopes of commanding the leadership of the ALP – hopes that are not naïve in light of Bill Shorten’s incompetence and unpopularity – her strategists may have convinced her that to present herself as a solid and dependable leader for Australia, she has to show how tough she is, and her willingness to bomb as many Muslim countries as Tony Abbott would. It is a sad and cynical performance, and means neither of the major parties will express any reservations about our impending expansion of the war. Yet at least Plibersek’s journey will provide a salutary lesson about the ALP, by showing her grim but predictable slide from idealistic ALP firebrand, to cynical imperialist apparatchik.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).