Issues in Australian Foreign Policy

By Beeson, Mark | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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Issues in Australian Foreign Policy


Beeson, Mark, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The second half of 2001 will be remembered as one of the more eventful and significant periods in recent Australian foreign policy. Two issues--immigration policy and the terrorist attack on the United States--dominated the period under review here. Although Australian interests were, arguably, only indirectly involved in the latter incident, the aftermath of "September the eleventh", as the attack rapidly became known, overshadowed Australia's federal election and gave foreign and security policy a rare prominence amongst an Australian electorate not usually known for its interest in foreign affairs. The tumultuous events of late 2001 not only threw the conduct and efficacy of John Howard's coalition government's foreign policy into sharp relief, it highlighted a number of issues that are likely to be central to the agendas of foreign policy-makers more generally over the coming decades.

In Australia itself, the first "khaki election" since the Vietnam era had paradoxical effects. Despite the sudden and unexpected general interest in foreign policy, debates about the possible content of such policies were remarkably circumscribed. The dominance of security issues and the reluctance of the Australian Labor Party to criticise the coalition government at a time of perceived national crisis, saw a remarkable uniformity of opinion amongst Australia's political elites regarding appropriate policy. In the aftermath of Labor's electoral defeat, dissident voices have been raised about its campaign strategy, but during the campaign itself, meaningful debate about Australia's possible policy responses was generally noticeable by its absence. Discussion of the "refugee crisis", which unfolded during the election campaign, and which became conflated with wider security questions, was marked by a similarly remarkable bipartisanship.

Even with the luxury of hindsight, some of the challenges thrown up by the recent events remain intimidating and not susceptible to easy solutions. Yet one conclusion did emerge with some clarity, and can be asserted with renewed confidence: the idea that policy can be neatly demarcated into separate "domestic" and "foreign" spheres has always been something of a fiction, albeit an administratively or politically convenient one at times. In the contemporary era, however, it has become increasingly apparent that political, economic and security concerns cannot be compartmentalised as "external" and "internal". (1) The latter part of 2001 demonstrated this contention with, at times, painful clarity, as events that occurred outside Australia's borders dramatically impacted on Australian society in unpredictable and often troubling ways. Similarly, what Australian policymakers may have seen as essentially "domestic" issues and policy responses were subjected to close, and often unflattering scrutiny by the outside world, in ways that jeopardised Australia's foreign relations.

The "Tampa crisis" and its aftermath

Andy Warhol famously observed that, in the global village, everyone would enjoy fifteen minutes of fame. Not only was the captain of a Norwegian cargo vessel plucked from obscurity to become the focus of international media attention and occasionally fractious diplomacy, but even the name of his ship--the Tampa--became synonymous with Australia's often contradictory and controversial immigration policies. The action of the Tampa's captain in rescuing refugees from their sinking vessel may have been standard international practice and unremarkable enough in itself, but the Australian government's determination to "defend the national interest" by ensuring that it was not seen as an "easy target" for refugees and people smugglers, (2) had the effect of transforming a commonplace occurrence into an international incident with disturbing domestic implications.

While the heated atmosphere of a domestic election campaign may have given these issues particular prominence, it is important to recognise that the seeds of what would become a major crisis in Australia's international relations had been sown some time before.

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