Julie Bishop was confirmed as Australia’s foreign minister. Working with Peter Varghese, the (relatively) new, clear-thinking secretary of DFAT, she will bring a new drive and philosophy to Australia’s foreign policy, with a strengthened focus on economics and trade. Even those who do not come from Ms Bishop’s side of politics have been impressed by her mastery of her foreign policy brief, and her attention to detail, as befits someone with a legal background.
More than a hunt of what is to come was evident in an early morning interview on Sky News’ Australian Agenda, conducted at 7am, a few hours after a late night of celebration at Ms Bishop’s Perth seat.
Ms Bishop set as priorities improving relations with Asian neighbours, and will fly to Jakarta and Port Moresby within days of being sworn into her new job. She also said that Australia’s relationship with China had been too focused on the resources sector, and wanted to establish a much wider and deeper friendship with Australia’s leading trading partner, as well as restoring relations with Japan, an area of benign neglect by the Rudd government.
She talked about new impetus to conclude free trade agreements with China, Japan and Korea, arguing that Australian farmers and others were now at a disadvantage with countries that had a FTA with the United States, such as Korea.
Ms Bishop confirmed organisational changes at DFAT, including the absorption of tourism and Tourism Australia within its remit.
And she rebuffed critics of the Coalition’s decision to limit the increase in foreign aid to the rise in the consumer price index, arguing there was clear evidence that in recent times some aid money had not been spent wisely, particularly singling out AusAid for criticism.
Her comments follow remarks by the director of Australia’s Development Policy Centre during the week that said there was room for much improvement in AusAID programs in the Pacific. Professor Stephen Howes questioned whether Australia was getting value for money from its aid budget, particularly in the extensive use of consultants.
Ms Bishop was circumspect on possible US action on Syria; and seemed unconvinced. What was alarming was her statement that despite a pledge from caretaker prime minister Kevin Rudd that she would be fully briefed on talks in New York at the United Nations Security Council and the G20 meeting in Russia, she had not been able to speak with outgoing foreign minister Bob Carr, who had been conducting Australia’s representation. According to the ABC, Senator Carr left the G20 meeting in St Petersburg, and cancelled a scheduled news conference with Australian journalists, referring them to the communiqué, which most observers found anodyne and uninformative.
G20 has not been earning itself many credits of late, and Tony Abbott and Ms Bishop will have to work hard in coming months to persuade the world to take the next meeting – to be hosted in Brisbane – seriously.
One revealing comment from the next foreign minister came when Peter van Onselin asked her whether the Coalition might follow Labor’s example (with Brendan Nelson) and offer Kevin Rudd a position as an ambassador. “Nothing springs to mind”, said Bishop, with only the faintest trace of a smile.
One footnote. It appears Julian Assange’s attempt to win friends and support in his home country has failed. His supporters failed to win a seat in the Senate, which appears to have been won by the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party.
Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA (NSW).