Young Australian voters should care about foreign policy

| May 16, 2022

When I first voted in 2013, climate policy had already solidified as a key election issue. In the years since, catastrophic bushfires and floods have rammed the message home, with 60 percent of Australians now agreeing “global warming is a serious and pressing problem” necessitating political action. This year, young Australians, especially those voting for the first time, are rightfully taking their views on issues like inadequate climate action, housing, and conspicuous societal inequities to the polls.

But another issue is taking up the campaign airtime it deserves. It’s unusual for foreign policy to take up much oxygen in an Australian federal election, and stranger still that it might be top-of-mind for young voters. Foreign policy, like national security, is broadly regarded as opaque, drawn-out decision-making, tucked away from public participation.

Yet foreign policy should be dismissed as haughty. Rather it should be seen as crucial for the country’s future prosperity. Australia needs to tailor a creative and nuanced foreign relations agenda that embeds climate action into policymaking, includes China, and restrengthens connections with the Indo-Pacific. These problems will affect young Australians the most, as they will have to both live with the consequences and find solutions. Young voters should take these concerns to the ballot box.

The view in Canberra is of a threatened global order and heightened regional competition in Australia’s neighbourhood. The fall of Kabul, invasion of Ukraine, and an ever-bolder China have compelled the Coalition into a straight-backed moral stance against the “arc of autocracy” and a fraught relationship with Beijing.

According to Paul Kelly, Scott Morrison’s main foreign policy aim has been an intensification of the balancing of Chinese assertiveness begun under his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull. The Morrison government’s Chinese rebuffs have included positives, like COVID-19 packages and vaccine donations to Pacific neighbours, part of the whole-of-government approach of diplomacy, defence, and development. But the showpiece was Morrison’s principal hand in AUKUS, a security pact that puts strident faith in the US as Australia’s protector and a “Global” Britain.

However, the agreement set back relations with France, a crucial Indo-Pacific ally. As one Australian Strategic Policy Institute report wryly puts it, “foreign policy is design, while diplomacy is implementation.” The AUKUS hubbub was arguably good policy but bad implementation, exposing “underappreciation” and “underinvestment” in diplomacy.

This government has made clumsy diplomatic moves. Recall the kerfuffle in recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to appease US President Donald Trump and the constituents in the marginal electorate of Wentworth. Or the bold decision to probe the Chinese origins of COVID-19, triggering further tensions with Beijing and trade reprisals on Australian exports.

But the real doozy is the China-Solomon Islands agreement that is threatening the establishment of a Chinese military base an arm’s length from Australia. Despite a history of security operations and nearly $2 billion spent on aid in the last decade, Canberra’s diverging interests and laggard performance on climate reforms have left it in a pickle with some Pacific nations. Some say this was to be expected given the at-times cultural disconnect we have to nations in “our backyard”, which bristles with notions of ownership as though Australia needed to do some weeding in the Pacific.

Would Labor leadership mean a policy reset? Anthony Albanese has called for closer ties with Asia, echoing past Labor leaders’ ambitions for “international good citizenship.” Proposed policies include a Pacific defence school, boosted ABC funding, an ASEAN special envoy to reignite multilateralism, and increasing regional assistance to five percent of gross national income. But budgetary constraints and a lack of clear long-term vision will prove tricky to bridge Australia’s strategic divergence with Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

But are the two major parties really that different? Despite a qualitative survey that revealed Labor and Coalition bi-partisanship on sixteen key foreign policy issues, campaign rhetoric has seen major parties tout their prowess on national security and foreign policy, tittering towards Howard-era “khaki election.” The rising “teal” independents who might decide this election are mostly silent. Andrew Wilkie and Zali Steggall support upping our foreign aid budget and the Greens want to reduce defence spending. No one talks much about China or emphasises the growing need to boost Australia’s diplomatic corps.

Ultimately, Australia’s future will be defined by new terms of engagement with the Indo-Pacific. Beijing’s coercive trade tactics demonstrate that economic integration is no longer the panacea once hoped. While a strong stance on China may rally certain supporters at home and in Washington, severed high-level communications with Beijing will only hurt Australia in the long run. The Coalition’s “megaphone diplomacy” of crossing red lines and being on war-footing lacks nuance.

Foreign policy and information are ever-more contested, and the emerging generation of Australian diplomats and foreign and security policymakers will need to rely on all aspects of statecraft to reconcile an expanding array of regional actors and avoid strategic fisticuffs. “Fortress Australia” reminded neighbours of Australia’s tendency to close off whenever it suits. Repairing relationships starts with funding increases for Australia’s gutted diplomatic department.

How should young voters in this country read this? They should look at foreign policy as tied at the hip to climate action and consider how Australia can collaborate with its allies to future-proof the planet and avoid putting at-risk nations further in harm’s way. For young voters, this should be about Australia’s identity in the world, its global leadership aspirations, and the image it projects to friends and foes alike.

Inspiring a future wave of young Australians to champion their country and build a safer world requires their active participation combined with a commitment from government to include a diversity of voices. Foreign policy tethered to diplomatic subtlety will shape mobility options and security for a group of politically active, culturally diverse, and hopeful young Australians who are signing up to vote in droves this election. Rather than being an afterthought at the ballot box, young voters should demand well-crafted foreign policy that’s fit for purpose.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.