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Does Australian foreign policy have a transparency problem?

Jeremy Costa | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

The US government’s surprising declassification of its 2018 strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific earlier this year provides a rare glimpse into the US’ vision for the region.

Undoubtedly Australia and other US allies are scrambling to analyse its contents, given it represents perhaps the clearest articulation of the US’ long-term goals in the region in the last four years.

But despite fears the Trump administration would instigate a monumental shift in American foreign policy, the document revealed a US agenda that largely reflects traditional priorities, such as the need to collaborate with like-minded allies and partners in the region.

The timing of its release is frustrating for US allies who have spent four years trying to fit Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy decisions into a broader strategic vision for the region. But Canberra can hardly complain, as it too is guilty of an agenda which has become increasingly shrouded in contradictions.

The Federal Government’s Transparency Conundrum

Transparency is a word that gets thrown around a lot in politics. Domestically, Scott Morrison has come under fire for what has been perceived as a concentrated effort to undercut accountability and transparency. Notably, critics have pointed to Morrison’s efforts to undermine the banking royal commission, which he initially lamented was merely a "populist whinge" that would threaten the Australian economy. The PM has also been criticised for scrapping plans to modernise the regulatory framework around political lobbying, despite recommendations by the National Audit Office which found the current system to be ineffective.

But this has not stopped the Prime Minister from portraying his government as a champion of transparency. In the foreign policy space he has promised Australia under his leadership would be focused on “being transparent and honest about our aspirations for the future”.

It was also in the name of transparency that the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act was passed in 2018, an initiative that Morrison advocated as a win for the defence of Australia’s national sovereignty.

Transparency, at least in rhetoric, has seemingly become an emphasis in Australia’s domestic and international policymaking. In reality, however, it has become a cover for unclear foreign policies that have only served to fracture Australia’s ability to be consistent in its conduct of foreign relations.

Contradictions in the Government’s Belt and Road Policy

Over the last two years, the Federal Government has ramped up pressure on the Victorian government for signing a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Namely, the Prime Minister has criticised the deal for being inconsistent with Australian foreign policy and undermining Canberra’s ability to “speak with one voice”. But the Federal Government’s policy on the BRI has been anything but clear.

In fact, in November 2018, Federal Trade Minister Simon Birmingham refused to criticise the deal, only noting that the Government is “positive for Australian engagement in BRI where those projects are sustainable projects that provide clear benefits for the recipients”. Foreign Minister Marise Payne likewise commented that it “encourage[s] the states and territories to expand opportunities with China”.

To add to this confusion, the Federal Government has its own agreement with China to co-operate on the BRI, but only on projects in third-party countries. It has also kept the text of the agreement secret.

Despite assertions that it targeted no particular agreement, the introduction of the Foreign Relations Bill into parliament in 2020, which would give the Foreign Minister power to veto any subnational foreign arrangement, almost certainly has Victoria’s deal in the crosshairs. In announcing the legislation the Government invoked familiar rhetoric, asserting that it is necessary to ensure “transparency about State and Territory foreign arrangements”.

But in today’s highly interconnected world, the success of modern diplomacy and foreign policy no longer relies solely on traditional actors. Instead, successful policy implementation requires consultation and collaboration with subnational actors, including the private sector and the states and territories.

Given this, it is more critical than ever before that Canberra articulates clear and specific foreign policies, especially on China (where tensions are most likely to emerge), to avoid the type of retrospective bickering that only serves to subvert Australia’s national interests.

Strategic Transparency - Is the Foreign Policy White Paper enough?

Australia has traditionally relied on the release of intermittent foreign policy white papers to articulate its strategic vision of the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The last white paper was released in 2017 under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) asserts that the COVID-19 pandemic has not altered “the currency of Australia’s long-term international objectives outlined in the Foreign Policy White Paper”.

But it is hard to believe that Canberra’s outlook has not been affected by a global pandemic that has ravaged economies, exacerbated tensions in the region and accelerated fault lines across the globe.

Sure, Australia’s long-term international objectives may not have changed, but calculations of how and through what mechanisms it can now pursue these objectives must surely be re-thought. A clear articulation of short and long-term strategy is important not only to inform Australia’s allies and crucial domestic actors, but also to ensure a consistent approach towards Canberra’s strategic rivals.

Putting an End to the Secrecy Myth

There is a myth surrounding the utility of secrecy in conducting effective foreign relations that needs to be debunked.

For Australia, as difficult choices involving a more assertive China grow in number, it has never been more important that it develops strong, clear and assertive policies which national and subnational actors can follow. It is this, not national security legislation such as the Foreign Relations Bill, which will ensure Australia ‘speaks with one voice’.

Jeremy Costa is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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