Truth in diplomacy

15 May 2019

How we treat each other, and our environment speaks volumes in other capitals, writes Mark Kenny.

Foreign policy and global affairs don't usually get much of an outing in Australian federal elections.

Broadly speaking, the policy field is held to be bipartisan with the Coalition and Labor as one on the big architecture, such as the US alliance, and often on a unity ticket on the hot-button issues such as the contested territorial claims in South China Sea.

Besides, as political hardheads know, there's no votes in it.

But according to an elite level cast of ANU academics - all leaders in their specialties - these generalisations hide a multitude of subtle but potentially important differences in emphasis, style, and even substance.

And these comforting generalisations often ignore the fact that Australia's domestic policy arguments and internal behaviours, state our values to the world even more convincingly than the reassuring values-affirmations issued through leaders and reinforced along diplomatic channels.

In the third of ANU's outstandingly popular 2019 Federal Election Series, former press gallery journalist Cath McGrath led an expert panel across the oceans to shores near and far, as they analysed the differences between the two sides of politics and brought forward challenges for Australia that have been overlooked in the campaign.

On stage were Ms Jacinta Carroll, Associate Professor Meg Keen, Dr Shiro Armstrong, Ms Anne McNaughton and Professor Sharon Bessell.

Hundreds of Canberrans, academics, interested citizens, and students, gathered for the event, scuttling the suggestion that elections are framed exclusively by hip-pocket concerns and reductive economic debates.

A raft of incisive questions probed at Australia's standing in the world: its contribution or failures in tackling global warming, its leadership role in the region, and even whether Australia can out-grow its reputation as an "outpost of the West" as one audience member described it.

Ms McNaughton stressed the European heritage of Australian language, institutions, and legal system, "but we are located in this region and we need to both draw on the strengths that we have from our European heritage and our contemporary relations".

Ms McNaughton said Australia did not face a choice of Europe-US on the one hand and the Indo-Pacific on the other but could do both, working with regional countries directly but also through its natural links and synergies with the EU.

Dr Armstrong reinforced this idea, noting that Australia need not doubt its place in the region.

"We are more Asian than any other country when you think of trade shares - two-thirds of our trade is with East Asia," he said.

"That's higher than Indonesia, China, all these other countries, so our economic prosperity lies in this region and I think it's an advantage for us that we have these institutions."

All panellists agreed that Australia could take a more forward-leaning stance in global and regional affairs and that debates and policy positions within Australia's borders transmit this countries values to the world.

Mark Kenny is senior fellow in the Australian Studies Institute, joining the University after a high-profile journalistic career culminating in six years as chief political correspondent and national affairs editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times.

Listen to the full discussion from the
'Australia's place in the world' panel event. And join Mark Kenny for his weekly wrap of the 2019 Federal Election coverage on the 'Democracy Sausage' podcast.