Tough times ahead for Bishop
Minimal exposure to international diplomacy
By Davendra Sharma
With a new government in Canberra has come an inexperienced foreign affairs minister with minimal exposure to international diplomacy.
Her first chore after being sworn in was to meet key officials and politicians from Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, China and Japan—the four countries of paramount trade and strategic importance to Australia.
PNG and Indonesia are main recipients of Australia’s foreign aid—around A$1.5 billion out of a mega annual handout budget of nearly A$6 billion.
But she has made no secret of the fact that Julie Bishop is Australia’s first female foreign affairs minister
“I believe that it sends a pretty powerful message for Australia that we have a female foreign minister,” Bishop told the local media after assuming office.
“I don’t overstate it, but it’s a milestone that has been reached now. It is always easier for the next woman that comes along.”
Bishop has not always had a charmed run in international affairs, which points to the fact that she will have a tough term ahead—especially in dealing with Australia’s full-time role in the powerful world group, the United Nations Security Council, where the country has a seat.
Bishop’s Liberal Party strongly opposed Australia obtaining a Security Council seat when it was in opposition but now it has to deal with it even if it does not approve of it. It is irony of sorts as the Liberals went to the 2010 elections saying they will scrap Australia’s campaign to gain a seat.
Australia will also host the 2014 G20 leaders’ summit, where Bishop needs to excel but can she? Some doubt that her relationship with her own department let alone foreign governments may be questionable.
“The diplomatic service is not accustomed to a minister without significant experience in international affairs or, at least, strongly formed views,” noted one newspaper analyst.
Within a week of her appointment, she was sent on a punishing schedule—attending the UN General Assembly to debate on Syria and Iran.
After New York will be Jakarta with another key agenda—people smuggling and asylum seeker issues. Also in the pipeline are trips to New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore and back to Indonesia. Next on the cards will be Japan, China, South Korea, Fiji and India.
“I don’t see it as a transactional portfolio by any means. I see it as developing relationships that will benefit Australia over the long-term,” Bishop says.
“My aim is to be the very best foreign minister that Australia could wish for. Is that a high enough standard for you?”
Slash foreign aid
Linked to Bishop’s approach to foreign policy is Australia’s stance on foreign aid to underdeveloped and developing countries in the Asia and Pacific islands region.
Her government swiftly moved to announce that AusAID will be scrapped as an independent statutory agency and that the overall aid programme is in urgent need of reform.
Under the former Rudd-Gillard governments, no other department budget grew so rapidly as foreign aid. Some handouts were arguably politicised partly to solicitor support for Canberra’s efforts to seek votes for Australia to have a non-permanent term on the UN Security Council.
Some say it was also politicised to give Rudd a role in Middle East peace talks.
While Rudd-Gillard’s programmes were destined for alleviating poverty and promoting development, some critics saw the foreign assistance was not an arm of diplomacy or an arm of national power for Australia as a nation as aid should be.
“Folding AusAid into DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade) gives a renewed and proper emphasis back to the national interest part of that equation,” argued one senior government advisor.
PNG reaps A$507 million from Canberra and because of its strategic importance, the amount is expected to stay if not be increased even without AusAID, one of Australia’s biggest spending agencies since it was introduced in the 1990s.
“We have made known our disappointment with aspects of AusAID’s operations in PNG for some time,” said Prime Minister Peter O’Neill.
Australia’s handout to the region has also ballooned in recent times especially RAMSI, the Honiara-based Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands peacekeeping force. The Rudd-Bob Carr government pledged A$500 million this year.
Australia had set a multi-million millennium goal, which was initially supposed to be attained in the 2015-2016 financial year, however with the looming deficit, that target was pushed out twice to 2017-2018 financial year.
Manus Island and Nauru to stay
Caught in a web of increasing number of refugees arriving and seeking shelter in Australia, the former Labor government has had to divert funds previously allocated for development aid to building and maintaining visa processing centres at PNG’s Manus Island and Nauru.
Since immigration processing on Manus Island and Nauru was started by the old Coalition government, both regional centres are expected to stay or even attract greater importance from the new regime, which is as keen on stopping illegal migrants as the previous Rudd government.
Together, the two centres in the region have costed up to A$1 billion yearly in the past.
There have been suggestions that Bishop-Abbott should heed Rudd’s hardline assylum seeker policies of sending refugees to PNG and Nauru for settlement there.
“He needs to swallow his pride and it’s hard to swallow his pride so soon after what was such a big win for him,”said outgoing Immigration Minister, Tony Burke.
Ironically only China has closely match Australia’s contribution to the Pacific islands region in terms of aid across a spectrum of industries and fields. Australia has over the past two years increased its aid by 9.6% while other rich OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries have reduced their handouts by an average of four percent.
Australian’s economy has stood the test of times in the last four years as it had fended off global pressures and maintained a recession-free economy despite slowdown on the world scene —as noted by Standards & Poors rating agency in its assessment of Australia as AAA economy.
Australia also announced under Rudd-Gillard to target future aid to alleviating malnutrition in the wake of a Work Bank finding this year, citing the Pacific islands countries as amongst countries having the highest prevalence of malnutrition, obesity and food-deficiency related diseases.
World Vision Australia chief executive Tim Costello said governments should comprehend that no dollar is better spent than foreign aid and that Australian aid had saved 200,000 lives in the past year.
“Australians are smart enough to know that overseas aid is for overseas,” he said.
‘Aid is not a luxury choice’
But other commentators were more critical of the government decision to slice or in some cases freeze and defer aid handouts.
Australia could and will pay a high price for cuts to overseas aid and diplomatic corps, warns an expert from the respected Canberra-based Australian National University.
“The fact is, in a globalised world and in our neighbourhood, Australian foreign policy and development assistance is not a luxury choice or an act of charity; it’s a shrewd, hard-headed investment. Our economic well-being is not always in the hands of politicians,” aid and diplomacy expert, Dr Susan Harris Rimmer of the ANU Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, noted.
At a time when Australia was riding high with a 3.25% GDP growth, a low inflation of 2.5% and unemployment of 5.5%, the government could have done better than just pay lip service to the islands region.
“We know this, deep down. So why does the government think that aid and diplomacy are such a soft target for budget cuts, especially when Australia’s only hope in the global economy is to understand more about our world and region, not less?”
Rimmer argued that Australia’s own international reputation takes a beating every time Canberra cuts back on development aid to the developing and under-developed countries around the region of Asia and Pacific.
“We are only hurting ourselves with this pattern.”
She said regional governments who look up to Australia and New Zealand for development assistance will not be happy about our internal politics of domestic surplus.
She said with long-term delays in the release of aid funds to the region, Australia was withholding A$2.9 billion over four years.
“This led to a redirecting of funds earmarked for overseas poverty alleviation to pay for the costs of the domestic asylum seeker programme, including mandatory detention.”
Around the region and parts of Asia, the Australian aid delays have forced the closure of health, education and women’s rights programmes announced by Gillard at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in 2012.
A review from the OECD last month warned that the move by Canberra would undermine the predictability of Australia’s foreign aid commitments.
Either way, Bishop will have a tough time convincing her own government to keep aid at pre-Abbott levels or influencing the regional governments that cuts are inevitable.
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