As the PM sets off to meet world leaders, his government is withdrawing the nation from international affairs. By Sophie Morris.

Tony Abbott’s global retreat

When Tony Abbott meets Barack Obama in Washington late next week, the president of the United States of America will no doubt want to discuss his ambitious emissions reduction plans.

If the prime minister is being honest, he would have to concede that, from July, there is the real prospect that Australia may have no official legislated climate policy.

The new senate looks likely to abolish the carbon tax but there is no certainty it will endorse the Coalition’s proposed alternative, which has been criticised by economists and environmentalists.

And it is not just on climate change that Australia is increasingly seen as being out of step with the international community. As Abbott tours the world, declaring Australia “open for business”, his government is pursuing a range of policies – on the environment, foreign aid and refugees – that see it retreating from an international approach.

This is no accident; there has been a conscious shift. Forget about global citizenship. Our foreign policy is now all about regional security and trade, rather than climate change and foreign aid. It’s about projecting national sovereignty and domestically oriented policy – stop the boats, axe the tax, end the debt – onto a global stage.

Liberal MP Dan Tehan, who worked for more than a decade at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, says the Abbott government is “unashamedly” pursuing the national interest, even if it puts it at odds with international institutions.

“It’s much more realpolitik and focused on the national interest,” he says. “There are times when multilateral interests will conflict with domestic interests. If you are pursuing the national interest, that above all else is what is important.”

And if that exposes Australia to criticism by international bodies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO?

“In the end, you can influence these multilateral organisations and bodies to ensure they’re looking after your interests,” says Tehan, “rather than them dictating to you what they perceive your interests to be.”

In part, this can be seen as a correction to the avid pursuit by Kevin Rudd of a seat on the United Nations Security Council and the various international obligations this entailed. But there is also a philosophical difference in how the Abbott government relates to the world. It harks back to the Howard-era focus on the national interest and disdain for institutions of global governance.

If Rudd were prime minister this year, he would be basking in international attention, relishing the prospect of using the G20 summit in November to lead global debate on issues of significance to all nations. Abbott’s ambitions lie elsewhere.

He has resisted pressure from the US and Europe to expand the G20 agenda to include climate change, arguing the forum should remain firmly focused on economics. But in a grudging concession this past week, he acknowledged it would probably be discussed at the summit.

Some diplomats from member countries interpreted this as a welcome sign that he would not use the role of the chair to prevent the world leaders – whose countries account for 75 per cent of global carbon emissions – discussing future action on climate change.

Last month, one ambassador breached the ironclad rule of diplomacy – that a diplomat should never comment on the domestic affairs of their host nation – to offer a frank assessment of the Abbott government’s approach to climate change.

Swedish ambassador Sven-Olof Petersson, who finished his posting last week, had a reputation among colleagues for colourful outbursts. His looming retirement allowed him some latitude. 

Even so, the parting shot he fired before returning to Sweden was unusually candid. “I’m amazed that a Liberal government does not choose a market mechanism to regulate emissions,” Petersson said, after a forum at the Australian National University. “I think that is really shocking.”

1 . Bucking the trend

In doing so, he voiced a view that other diplomats have expressed only privately, reflecting astonishment that Australia is bucking the global trend towards carbon pricing and serious action on climate change.

At the same forum, his Italian counterpart expressed similar views, albeit more mildly. “We were all a little bit surprised,” said Pier Francesco Zazo, Italy’s ambassador to Australia, “that environment was not considered a priority issue. Sooner or later Australia will go back to this … and understand the importance of the environment.”

On another environmental front, the government is asking the UN World Heritage Committee to revoke protection for 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian forest, which was recognised as a World Heritage site less than a year ago after a deal between environmentalists and loggers ended a decades-long conflict.

Two technical bodies advising the UN committee have rejected the Australian government’s submission, with one noting it contained “no detailed justifications or explanations”. 

Lyndon Schneiders, national director of the Wilderness Society, says Australia could be said to be leading the world on this – but leading it in the wrong direction. “This is the first time ever a government has sought to have sections of World Heritage revoked,” he says.

A final decision from the 21-member committee will be handed down within weeks, along with a decision on whether the Great Barrier Reef should be listed as endangered, due in part to concerns about coal port expansions.

2 . Fall in foreign aid

But perhaps the most obvious sign of how the Abbott government is repositioning Australia globally is in the cuts to spending on foreign aid and its new aid-for-trade focus. It’s an easy way to save cash in a tight budget, but a country’s approach to foreign aid also says a lot about how it views its role in the world.

Labor’s deputy leader and foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek says the government’s stance on aid and other international issues has been noted globally. “The Abbott government’s cuts to aid and retreat on climate action are seriously damaging Australia’s standing in the international community,” she says.

In the budget, the government abandoned its pledge to meet the UN millennium development goals, an international pact to alleviate poverty. It cut planned aid spending by $7.6 billion over five years, in the single biggest budget saving. This freezes aid spending for two years at $5 billion, after which it will grow with inflation, rather than being calculated as a percentage of gross national income.

In power, Labor had set a target of spending 0.5 per cent of national income on foreign aid – up from 0.35 per cent – but had repeatedly deferred the achievement of this as it sought savings.

The biggest fall in aid funding is to Africa, which had been the beneficiary of Rudd’s UN campaign. Oxfam CEO Helen Szoke says that even though Africa may not be in our immediate neighbourhood, Australian companies are active there and there are good reasons to provide aid.  

“We’re happy to benefit from mining the wealth of those countries,” she says, “but we’re walking away from the commitment to helping the world’s poorest people who live there. What contribution is Australia going to make to be a constructive international citizen to tackle global problems?”

Former Liberal senator Russell Trood, the president of the UN Association of Australia and professor of international relations at Griffith University, is also concerned by the retreat from development assistance in Africa.

“Now is the time to be on the ground in Africa and we have been doing good projects that have contributed to the alleviation of poverty,” Trood says. “If we substantially cut investment in Africa, I think that’s a mistake.”

However, he says it is too soon to accuse the Abbott government of abandoning multilateralism, noting that Australia is still very active in the UN Security Council, where it is serving a two-year term, and is putting a lot of effort into convening the G20 summit.

Trood acknowledges the hardline approach on asylum seekers has surprised some in the international community but he says other countries have also taken note of the policy’s success in stopping boat arrivals. 

The tough approach to offshore detention, pursued by both Labor and the Coalition, has already earned Australia a reputation as a nation that is prepared to ignore criticism from the UNHCR. When China criticises your human rights record, as it did in February, you know the world has taken note.

As the government talks to Cambodia about sending refugees to the impoverished nation, human rights groups are concerned that, rather than being an outlier on refugee policy, Australia may be setting an alarming precedent that undermines the global refugee regime.

“Australia needs to stop setting a bad model for the region by shirking its own obligations,” says Elaine Pearson, the director of Human Rights Watch in Australia. 

Under conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, Canada has looked to Australia’s tough approach for guidance on dealing with asylum seekers, and he and Abbott will no doubt discuss the issue when they meet in Ottawa next week.

Closer to home, there are signs that New Zealand is considering following Australia’s lead. In late May, Prime Minister John Key said intelligence showed people smugglers were preparing to attempt the longer journey to New Zealand since the Australian voyage was no longer worthwhile.

He left open the option of offshore detention. This followed his government’s changes to immigration law last year to allow “mass arrivals” of 30 or more asylum seekers to be detained for up to six months.

3 . Narrow interests

In its first nine months in power, the Abbott government has already set out its foreign policy framework, pursuing free-trade deals in the Asia-Pacific; a deeper engagement with Japan, even at the risk of offending China; and now trying to repair a broken relationship with Indonesia.

All governments pursue their national interest. It’s the guiding principle of foreign affairs. But there are already signs that this government defines it narrowly, in terms of its domestic agenda and with a focus on trade and security, with little heed to international opinion.

It was an approach that also guided Australia’s last Coalition government, but will be tested in a world in which issues such as climate change demand a global response.

In a speech to the Westpoint military academy last week, President Obama said a “spirit of co-operation must energise the global effort to combat climate change”, describing it as a “creeping national security crisis” that would lead to refugee flows, natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food. “That’s why, next year, I intend to make sure America is out front in a global framework to preserve our planet,” he said.

Unless Obama is very persuasive when he meets Abbott, it seems likely Australia will not be joining him at the front of this global effort. More likely, we will be bringing up the rear.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 7, 2014 as "Abbott’s global retreat".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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