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Why Is Foreign Policy Ignored In Australian Election Campaigns?

So far, the election campaign has started small.

16/05/2016 3:47 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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Australia’s international policy debate is small and it is uninspired.

This election has started off cautiously. The government has put forward a narrow, safe agenda aimed purely at holding the line and reaching the finish line in front on July 2.

Labor are fighting an uphill battle, but are at least offering a refreshingly optimistic domestic policy agenda in the hope of an unprecedented 19-seat turnaround on election day.

What is striking, however, is the distinct lack of debate surrounding Australia's broader role in the global community: a debate that requires longer-term, creative thinking that extends the imagination far beyond upcoming electoral cycles.

Indeed, the muted debate on foreign policy and, more broadly, Australia's role and opportunities in the world seems uniquely stifled in Australia when compared to political debates abroad.

Look at recent elections in our region, and the arguments occurring in Europe and North America: each respective nation's role in the world is a key narrative in which political actors strive to own and use to inspire support. Be it the Duterte presidential campaign in the Philippines, which placed regional security tensions front and center, or the current debate of the future of the EU throughout Europe and Britain.

Whether it is the US debating its role in the Middle East and Asia, or Canada's determination to remodel itself as a good international citizen through its dramatic uptake of refugees under Trudeau, international policy is central to national politics. Australia, in comparison, is largely ignoring the global political orthodoxy and focusing almost purely on an insular and comparably short-term suite of local challenges.

To what extent international policy is debated in Australia, it is usually in the context of what Australia can get out of the international system, not what it can contribute, and how we can protect ourselves from global challenges, not how we can help solve them for the good of the broader international community.

Such debates are important -- national interest is always central to a healthy foreign policy discussion. But the substance of our current debate ignores the broader international policy conversation that should be occurring in a country of Australia's weight during election season. An obsessive focus on issues of immediate self interest prohibits the articulation of a deeper sense of national purpose.

Australia's international policy debate is small and it is uninspired. Largely, this is due to a public skepticism regarding the potential of a nation of Australia's size to influence global norms and international trends, and a politics that doesn't strive to alter this perception.

But such skepticism is unfounded: it ignores the size of Australia's economy (the world's 12th largest out of 193 recognised countries), and its geographic proximity to the region that will define global security and economic prosperity in the 21st century, and probably beyond.

Australia has shaped the world and the region before: be it through the creation of institutions such as the East Asia Summit and APEC, or the chairing of the G20 and UN Security Council. The bold reaction to Russia's belligerence in Ukraine that saw the downing of passenger flight MH17 showed how Australia can influence, but the government should not wait for exogenous shocks such as the downing of a passenger jet to seek to shape the global agenda.

With the depth of international challenges facing the global community, opportunities abound for Australia to play a pivotal role in shaping these debates. The climate change and refugee crises provide Australia an opportunity to lead, forge lasting international partnerships and consolidate its position in the global pecking order, bettering Australia's prospects when dealing with inevitable future international tumult.

But a nation's preferences are ultimately reflected by its government's spending priorities. The past three decades have generally seen the Department of Foreign Affairs shrink in its capabilities, reach and influence. The foreign aid budget is the lowest hanging fruit when reaching for a path to surplus come budget week. Considering international affairs has been placed so low on the national agenda throughout successive governments, the Australian public's apathy towards it is understandable.

A national election, however, should be the time to discuss a nation's place in the world. Not a time to shirk away from ambitious ideas that aim grow and strengthen a nation's influence, particularly when that nation is located in a region so pivotal to international affairs. A bolder, more engaged and more present Australia on the global stage has the opportunity to create real, long-term economic and security advantages domestically, and this reality needs to be articulated.

So far, the election campaign has started small. Let's hope the next seven weeks provide a more expansive set of ideas, and a greater debate surrounding Australia's broader national purpose.

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