With John Howard no longer calling the shots for the nation or the Liberal Party, a trickle of criticism of Australia’s second longest serving Prime Minister has begun.

First there was the Liberal Party’s reversal of key Howard policy positions on WorkChoices and a national apology to the Stolen Generation. 

In a speech to the Lowy Institute last night, Liberal Senator Russell Trood offered a critique of the Howard foreign policy and his inaction on climate change. But beyond those notable inclusions, Trood also offered some thoughts on the challenges facing Australia’s new government as it navigates a rapidly changing international environment. Here are some highlights from Senator Trood’s speech:

On global order

… [A]s threatening as terrorism has become, it is important to appreciate that it is only one dimension of change in an international system experiencing historic transformation. We are living (L&G) in an age where some of the elemental components of the existing international order are being subjected to intense pressures — America faces the challenge of rising great powers, globalisation’s open liberal economic order is under assault from protectionism, multilateralism is confronting a crisis of confidence, fanaticism and extremism of all types is on the rise, the way we live work and play is placing increasing stress on the environment, the tide appears to have turned against further expansion of democracy and there is a long list of other threats dangers and disjunctions. These developments are redrawing the contours of the geopolitical landscape

On Howard’s failings

The paper contends that overall, the Howard government’s foreign policy record is an impressive one, but that we must be frank in acknowledging its weaknesses. Its response to climate change, for example, was to say the least uneven, the Pacific solution overshadowed the considerable strengths of a well conceived and responsible immigration policy, and as I have said on the public record on other occasions, Iraq was an ill-conceived enterprise from the very beginning: it was a venture where none of Australia’s compelling national interests were at stake. We were right however, to remain committed to a long term presence given our initial role in the invasion. After March 2003, the failures of policy there were a constant burden on the government and a factor in our declining public support.

One of the shortcomings of the Howard government’s foreign policy was its distrust of multilateralism. This was particularly difficult to comprehend in an era when more and more foreign policy issues require international cooperation. It was also curious in the context of Australia’s well established expertise and competence in the field …

On looking forward

It is now time, however, to look ahead and for the Coalition to undertake a comprehensive reassessment of its foreign policy. In a world of profound change and enormous challenges, we should be mindful of, but cannot be hostage to, the Howard government’s foreign policy legacy. It is common ground, I trust, that we are in need of fresh ideas and new policy options. These should be judged against Liberal values and for their capacity to provide practical solutions to the challenges we face. I believe this paper makes a useful and creative contribution to this process.

On the new government

Very briefly, the paper aims to reinvigorate the foundations of a Liberal approach to foreign policy and stands in stark contrast to the Rudd approach. There the vague and conceptually crippled foreign policy principles focused on the so called “three pillars of policy” fail utterly to give sufficient attention to Australia ‘s national interests. The pillars rest on conceptual quick sand. This makes the whole of Labor’s foreign policy structure highly unstable and places the nation’s interest at risk…

The Rudd government appears to find the idea of policy prioritisation an excruciating challenge. It is deeply alarming for example, that during its first months of office the government seems to be going out of its way to devalue the excellent relationship the Howard government was able to establish with Japan.

Where to from here?

Let me finish by reiterating that as the 21st century unfolds, Australia is likely to face a steadily expanding array of foreign policy challenges in an increasingly complex strategic environment. The things we have done in the past will not, of themselves, be good enough in the future.

We will only be able to remain secure and prosperous if we play an increasingly smart national game, one that is more strategic in the conception and design of our foreign policy, more resolute in acquiring the means to underpin it and more tactically astute in the ways we seek to pursue it.

Peter Fray

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