Australia's Liberals Need Foreign Policy Lesson

Story Stream
recent articles


WHAT is the purpose of a political party? Is it in any sense a social movement, a movement of ideas and ideals?

Let me give you some context. One of the great fringe benefits of being a foreign editor is that I fairly frequently speak to groups of students - undergraduates, postgraduates and sometimes young professionals in leadership programs - about foreign affairs. Most have studied international relations or something similar.

They are without exception among the best people our society has to offer: intellectually gifted, curious, passionate to engage with the world, wanting profoundly to make a positive contribution.

Any sane political party would be thrilled to recruit any one of them. But why would such a young person even consider joining the Liberal Party after its atrocious performance in foreign affairs during the past six months?

Foreign affairs is often dismissed by political hardheads as unlikely to change votes at elections. In fact foreign affairs can be politically decisive in three ways.

First, to get into government an opposition has to show it can be trusted with economic management and national security. Mastery of foreign affairs is thus a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of government.

Second, governments do sometimes make serious mistakes and an opposition can make them pay. Moreover because the portfolio engages the big global issues, the relevant spokesperson will get a lot of media coverage.

But the third reason is most important. Foreign affairs, almost uniquely, engages basic human and political values. Will you speak up for human rights? Do you care about totalitarian political movements? Are you exercised by the rise of anti-Semitism? How do you respond to poverty or genocide?

There is no reason one side of politics would have a natural advantage in this field, though Labor is often assumed to. But the Liberals founded the Colombo Plan, founded the US alliance, began abolishing the White Australia policy in the 1960s, campaigned honourably against Nazi and communist totalitarianism, and soon.

The Liberals today fail at two levels. They are astonishingly ignorant of their own history, never contesting Labor's vigorous identification of itself with the Australian story. And, for some reason, during the past six months they seem to have abandoned all political values in foreign policy.

Julie Bishop may well be the worst opposition foreign affairs spokesperson in decades. At a very superficial level she presents well but you get no sense at all of any serious political culture operating when she makes her astoundingly opportunistic and inconsistent policy interventions.

She began her tenure in foreign affairs shortly after it was revealed that she neither wrote, nor it seems even read properly, the chapter of a book about the Liberal Party that bore her name as author. What idealistic young person would be inspired by that example to join the Liberal Party?

Bishop's first speech in the portfolio was to the Sydney Institute. It was a ho-hum recital of the zeitgeist except where she considered the causes of war,one of which was the decline of empires, as suggested by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson.

Bishop drew our attention to the danger we face because: "It is clear that the economic empire of the United States is facing serious decline ..."

In preaching US declinism Bishop is way to the left of Kevin Rudd, who makes the surely sound analytical judgment that the present troubles do not guarantee long-term US decline.

But, more important, is Bishop even aware that in accusing the US of economic imperialism she is employing the hoariest neo-Marxist category?

More recently Bishop criticised Rudd for, among other things, raising human rights in Tibet publicly and for not "working constructively" with the Chinese over the issuing of an Australian visa to Rebiya Kadeer.

Virtually every commentator took Bishop's comments to mean she thought the government should have denied a visa to Kadeer, which would have been a shocking sell-out of free speech and human rights. The idea the visa should not have been granted was explicitly backed by Philip Ruddock, who presumably thought he was backing Bishop.

Under pressure Bishop later said she thought the visa should be issued but that Rudd had made a mess of the China relationship overall. What a lame attempt at low-grade obfuscation and finessing that was. What Liberal brains trust thought the media would not move to the obvious question: Should the visa have been issued?

But the manifest political amateurism is less important for the purposes of my argument than the absolute lack of political values, the determination to avoid, if possible, a statement of principle.

Similarly, Bishop's criticism of Rudd for raising Tibetan human rights publicly contradicted numerous statements of her foreign affairs predecessor, Andrew Robb, a vastly more formidable figure. This has been pointed out in a devastating submission by the Australia Tibet Council.

But again the wretched political amateurism and inconsistency is less important than the absolute lack of political values. How could Bishop have lived through the Cold War, have got to the age and eminence she has reached in the Liberal Party, without having some notion about the need to publicly express human rights concerns when dealing with authoritarian regimes?

Why on earth would any young person of ideals, capability, commitment and courage - the type I meet at universities and the like around Australia - join a party if the greatest expression of human solidarity it can come up with for Chinese victims of human rights abuses is the idea that such matters should not be raised publicly but pursued only at closed sessions of officials' dialogues? Was Bishop entirely absent politically from the 20th century?

The great G.K. Chesterton, once a champion of the British Liberal Party, watched with horror as it declined into irrelevance. He was moved to write: "Time and again in history victory has come to a little party with big ideas. But can anyone conceive anything with the mark of death more on its brow than a little party with little ideas?"

In foreign policy, that's the Liberal Party today.


Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles