Foreign policies are all at sea

Apart from the ongoing asylum seeker and border protection debate, foreign affairs issues have so far been given little attention in this election campaign. There are nevertheless likely to be wide differences between Labor and Coalition views and it is time we were informed about how they propose to deal with them.Foreign affairs issues may often be very complex but they can impact on our lives and on fundamental human rights. We need to be informed how the Government plans to tackle them.For example, most agree on the importance of the United States relationship but differ on how it should be managed. Both major parties agree, if reluctantly, that we should remain involved in Afghanistan, but few want to see this kind of involvement repeated.The foreign policy strategies of the Labor Party are fairly clear and seem unlikely to change, thanks to Rudd’s influence. We should, however, be pressing Labor to give more attention to humanitarian issues and to its earlier proclaimed objective to make the UN more effective in peacekeeping. If that had been achieved, a UN mission, and not the US and NATO, would be the major player in Afghanistan.Under Labor our foreign policy is unlikely to change much, but the big question is – how will it be shaped if Tony Abbott becomes prime minister? So far we have had few clues from the Coalition. Many of its members have strong views, but few have had any experience in the conduct of Australia’s relations with this complex and changing world.To begin with, if we want Australia to be a responsible nation, then we need to act accordingly, bearing in mind that the litmus test is how we observe and uphold UN conventions and respond to humanitarian crises. Mr Abbott has given us few clues. However, his proposed “stop the boats” plan is profoundly disturbing, as is his unqualified support for Israel over recent events in Gaza.What will be an Abbott government’s policy on the United Nations? The position of the Howard government was not encouraging. Then we eagerly joined with the US-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq, in effect defying UN appeals and virtually violating the UN charter. It ended Saddam Hussein’s rule, but at appalling cost to the population – and it unleashed a sectarian conflict.Mr Abbott is keen to keep our population down, but will he support the pressing issue of population control, especially in the Third World? Under Howard we refused to back international action on population.What is the Coalition’s stand on peacekeeping – strengthening the UN’s central role and regional arrangements that would prevent political problems between states from eruption into conflict?What is the Coalition’s policy on reforms aimed at preventing a repetition of the global financial crisis? What is its stand on pressing environmental issues like climate change?Abbott has had little to say on humanitarian issues, which impact on us all, whether internationally or at home.John Howard responded well on two counts – in East Timor, and our generous response to the tsunami in Indonesia. There are likely to be more challenges of this kind, which impact on human rights.The Coalition’s weak stand in relation to human rights is very worrying. It has criticised the Government’s campaign to win a seat on the UN Security Council.If Mr Abbott were to win government, we would be even less likely to get support from the international community.James Dunn is an author with four decades of experience as a foreign affairs official and with UN agencies.

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