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Friday, 13 June 2014

Tony Abbott’s global retreat | The Saturday Paper

Tony Abbott’s global retreat | The Saturday Paper

Tony Abbott’s global retreat

As the PM sets off to meet world leaders, his government is withdrawing the nation from international affairs.

When Tony Abbott meets Barack Obama in
Washington late next week, the president of the United States of America
will no doubt want to discuss his ambitious emissions reduction plans.
If the prime minister is being honest, he would have to concede that,
from July, there is the real prospect that Australia may have no
official legislated climate policy.

The new senate looks likely to abolish the carbon tax but there is no
certainty it will endorse the Coalition’s proposed alternative, which
has been criticised by economists and environmentalists.

And it is not just on climate change that Australia is increasingly
seen as being out of step with the international community. As Abbott
tours the world, declaring Australia “open for business”, his government
is pursuing a range of policies – on the environment, foreign aid and
refugees – that see it retreating from an international approach.

This is no accident; there has been a conscious shift. Forget about
global citizenship. Our foreign policy is now all about regional
security and trade, rather than climate change and foreign aid. It’s
about projecting national sovereignty and domestically oriented policy –
stop the boats, axe the tax, end the debt – onto a global stage.

Liberal MP Dan Tehan, who worked for more than a decade at the
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, says the Abbott government is
“unashamedly” pursuing the national interest, even if it puts it at odds
with international institutions.

“It’s much more realpolitik and focused on the national interest,” he
says. “There are times when multilateral interests will conflict with
domestic interests. If you are pursuing the national interest, that
above all else is what is important.”

And if that exposes Australia to criticism by international bodies,
such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the
World Heritage Committee of UNESCO?

“In the end, you can influence these multilateral organisations and
bodies to ensure they’re looking after your interests,” says Tehan,
“rather than them dictating to you what they perceive your interests to

In part, this can be seen as a correction to the avid pursuit by
Kevin Rudd of a seat on the United Nations Security Council and the
various international obligations this entailed. But there is also a
philosophical difference in how the Abbott government relates to the
world. It harks back to the Howard-era focus on the national interest
and disdain for institutions of global governance.

If Rudd were prime minister this year, he would be basking in
international attention, relishing the prospect of using the G20 summit
in November to lead global debate on issues of significance to all
nations. Abbott’s ambitions lie elsewhere.

He has resisted pressure from the US and Europe to expand the G20
agenda to include climate change, arguing the forum should remain firmly
focused on economics. But in a grudging concession this past week, he
acknowledged it would probably be discussed at the summit.

Some diplomats from member countries interpreted this as a welcome
sign that he would not use the role of the chair to prevent the world
leaders – whose countries account for 75 per cent of global carbon
emissions – discussing future action on climate change.

Last month, one ambassador breached the ironclad rule of diplomacy
– that a diplomat should never comment on the domestic affairs of their
host nation – to offer a frank assessment of the Abbott government’s
approach to climate change.

Swedish ambassador Sven-Olof Petersson, who finished his posting last
week, had a reputation among colleagues for colourful outbursts. His
looming retirement allowed him some latitude. 

Even so, the parting shot he fired before returning to Sweden was
unusually candid. “I’m amazed that a Liberal government does not choose a
market mechanism to regulate emissions,” Petersson said, after a forum
at the Australian National University. “I think that is really

Bucking the trend

In doing so, he voiced a view that other diplomats have expressed
only privately, reflecting astonishment that Australia is bucking the
global trend towards carbon pricing and serious action on climate

At the same forum, his Italian counterpart expressed similar views,
albeit more mildly. “We were all a little bit surprised,” said Pier
Francesco Zazo, Italy’s ambassador to Australia, “that environment was
not considered a priority issue. Sooner or later Australia will go back
to this … and understand the importance of the environment.”

On another environmental front, the government is asking the UN World
Heritage Committee to revoke protection for 74,000 hectares of
Tasmanian forest, which was recognised as a World Heritage site less
than a year ago after a deal between environmentalists and loggers ended
a decades-long conflict.

Two technical bodies advising the UN committee have rejected the
Australian government’s submission, with one noting it contained “no
detailed justifications or explanations”. 

Lyndon Schneiders, national director of the Wilderness Society, says
Australia could be said to be leading the world on this – but leading it
in the wrong direction. “This is the first time ever a government has
sought to have sections of World Heritage revoked,” he says.

A final decision from the 21-member committee will be handed down
within weeks, along with a decision on whether the Great Barrier Reef
should be listed as endangered, due in part to concerns about coal port

Fall in foreign aid

But perhaps the most obvious sign of how the Abbott government is
repositioning Australia globally is in the cuts to spending on foreign
aid and its new aid-for-trade focus. It’s an easy way to save cash in a
tight budget, but a country’s approach to foreign aid also says a lot
about how it views its role in the world.

Labor’s deputy leader and foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek
says the government’s stance on aid and other international issues has
been noted globally. “The Abbott government’s cuts to aid and retreat on
climate action are seriously damaging Australia’s standing in the
international community,” she says.

In the budget, the government abandoned its pledge to meet the UN
millennium development goals, an international pact to alleviate
poverty. It cut planned aid spending by $7.6 billion over five years, in
the single biggest budget saving. This freezes aid spending for two
years at $5 billion, after which it will grow with inflation, rather
than being calculated as a percentage of gross national income.

In power, Labor had set a target of spending 0.5 per cent of national
income on foreign aid – up from 0.35 per cent – but had repeatedly
deferred the achievement of this as it sought savings.

The biggest fall in aid funding is to Africa, which had been the
beneficiary of Rudd’s UN campaign. Oxfam CEO Helen Szoke says that even
though Africa may not be in our immediate neighbourhood, Australian
companies are active there and there are good reasons to provide aid.  

“We’re happy to benefit from mining the wealth of those countries,”
she says, “but we’re walking away from the commitment to helping the
world’s poorest people who live there. What contribution is Australia
going to make to be a constructive international citizen to tackle
global problems?”

Former Liberal senator Russell Trood, the president of the UN
Association of Australia and professor of international relations at
Griffith University, is also concerned by the retreat from development
assistance in Africa.

“Now is the time to be on the ground in Africa and we have been doing
good projects that have contributed to the alleviation of poverty,”
Trood says. “If we substantially cut investment in Africa, I think
that’s a mistake.”

However, he says it is too soon to accuse the Abbott government of
abandoning multilateralism, noting that Australia is still very active
in the UN Security Council, where it is serving a two-year term, and is
putting a lot of effort into convening the G20 summit.

Trood acknowledges the hardline approach on asylum seekers has
surprised some in the international community but he says other
countries have also taken note of the policy’s success in stopping boat

The tough approach to offshore detention, pursued by both Labor and
the Coalition, has already earned Australia a reputation as a nation
that is prepared to ignore criticism from the UNHCR. When China
criticises your human rights record, as it did in February, you know the
world has taken note.

As the government talks to Cambodia about sending refugees to the
impoverished nation, human rights groups are concerned that, rather than
being an outlier on refugee policy, Australia may be setting an
alarming precedent that undermines the global refugee regime.

“Australia needs to stop setting a bad model for the region by
shirking its own obligations,” says Elaine Pearson, the director of
Human Rights Watch in Australia. 

Under conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, Canada has looked
to Australia’s tough approach for guidance on dealing with asylum
seekers, and he and Abbott will no doubt discuss the issue when they
meet in Ottawa next week.

Closer to home, there are signs that New Zealand is considering
following Australia’s lead. In late May, Prime Minister John Key said
intelligence showed people smugglers were preparing to attempt the
longer journey to New Zealand since the Australian voyage was no longer

He left open the option of offshore detention. This followed his
government’s changes to immigration law last year to allow “mass
arrivals” of 30 or more asylum seekers to be detained for up to six

Narrow interests

In its first nine months in power, the Abbott government has already
set out its foreign policy framework, pursuing free-trade deals in the
Asia-Pacific; a deeper engagement with Japan, even at the risk of
offending China; and now trying to repair a broken relationship with

All governments pursue their national interest. It’s the guiding
principle of foreign affairs. But there are already signs that this
government defines it narrowly, in terms of its domestic agenda and with
a focus on trade and security, with little heed to international

It was an approach that also guided Australia’s last Coalition
government, but will be tested in a world in which issues such as
climate change demand a global response.

In a speech to the Westpoint military academy last week, President
Obama said a “spirit of co-operation must energise the global effort to
combat climate change”, describing it as a “creeping national security
crisis” that would lead to refugee flows, natural disasters, and
conflicts over water and food. “That’s why, next year, I intend to make
sure America is out front in a global framework to preserve our planet,”
he said.

Unless Obama is very persuasive when he meets Abbott, it seems likely
Australia will not be joining him at the front of this global effort.
More likely, we will be bringing up the rear.

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