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Turnbull vs. Shorten: Wherefore Art Thou Foreign Policy?

As the 2016 federal election heats up in its final week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have been travelling across the country in an effort to woo voters. Bearing the mantras of ‘jobs and growth’ and ‘putting people first’ respectively, foreign policy has been conspicuously absent from the campaign trail.

We live in an increasingly interconnected world with global threats of terrorism and climate change, vast upheavals in human movement and simmering tensions in our Asia-Pacific region. So why have these issues not been at the heart of this election campaign?

It would be simplistic to argue that voters do not care about foreign policy. Certainly, polls suggest that it is not high on voters’ minds this election. However, I argue that this is caused by the major parties' convergence on a range of foreign policy issues accompanied by a fervent desire by the leaders to shift the national conversation away from foreign policy.

Asylum Seekers

As one of the only foreign policy topics discussed during the campaign, the historically divisive issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat has not taken centre stage. The issue came to light due to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s comments concerning asylum seekers and the moderate dissent within the Labor Party on this issue. However, there has been little substantive debate on the issue, in a deliberate move by party leaders.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Turnbull has carefully turned down the divisive rhetoric that characterised the Abbott government's stance on issues of national security and immigration. Following the politically disastrous softening on this issue under the first Rudd government, Labor has also returned to agreeing with the Coalition on asylum seekers. Seeking to neutralise this issue, Shorten’s opposition has fallen in lockstep with the government on boat tow backs and off-shore detention.

In spite of calls within the Labor Party for a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers, Shorten has been adamant in reigning in members and candidates that oppose the party policy.

Climate Change

The return of Malcolm Turnbull to the Liberal Party leadership prompted hopes by many that this would signal a more ambitious policy complying with Australia’s international obligations. Indeed, at the Paris climate talks last December, Australia took on a much more cooperative role than under the Abbott government.

This accords more with the Labor Party’s position in relation to the United Nations' climate change process, with a policy of strong engagement continued since the Rudd government signing the Kyoto Protocol in 2007.

There remain stark differences between the Coalition and Labor on their plans to meet Australia’s international commitments. Turnbull has not altered Abbott’s direct action plan that the Climate Institute reports will not even reach the Coalition’s low emissions reductions target without further taxpayer funds. Under Shorten, Labor remains committed to carbon pricing, with more ambitious emissions reductions targets and renewable energy investment.

However, the fact remains that neither parties’ policies are in line with the science to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees as agreed to in Paris, and both sides have a vested interest in reducing airtime on this issue.

Without more ambitious action, Turnbull risks appearing like a hypocrite considering his 2009 declaration that he would "not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as [he] is." On the other hand, Shorten wishes to avoid association with the unpopular ‘carbon tax’ associated with Gillard Labor government.

It plays into the hands of both major parties to avoid in depth discussion of climate change.

Moving Forward

Whoever wins the hearts of Australian voters, it is clear that the 2016 election will not be fought and won on foreign policy. Australia has seen a convergence on a number of controversial foreign policy issues, with political leaders seeking to downplay these issues to avoid being tied to previous policies. It remains to be seen whether such a détente can continue in the unpredictable world of international affairs.

David Cazzulino is completing a Bachelor of Arts/Laws at the University of Queensland.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Veni and CPSU/CSA (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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