If Australian foreign policy has generally been marked by bipartisanship and, frankly, an element of disinterest by voters, the Lowy Institute debate between Foreign Minister Bob Carr and opposition foreign affairs spokesperson Julie Bishop last night changed all that. There was a clear divide between the two that could, potentially, resonate with voters on September 7.

Bishop carved out a new Coalition policy position that foreign affairs would henceforth be about trying to secure Australia’s economic interests. All else fell away by comparison. “Foreign policy will be trade policy,” Bishop said, “and trade policy will be foreign policy.”

By contrast, Carr pursued a conventional, if thoughtful, foreign affairs line. His most innovative contribution came from the conflict resolution handbook regarding the South China Sea dispute. When asked how each party would address the issue, Carr said Australia would encourage putting to one side the thorny issue of sovereignty over disputed islands and that there then be negotiations over the division of resources.

Bishop was more disengaged, suggesting it was not in China’s interest to escalate regional disputes, hence such disputes were not an issue. On the generally sanguine nature of China’s economic and strategic rise, both Carr and Bishop were in positive agreement.

This agreement was not quite a “conspiracy of silence” or even “complacency”, as put by Lowy Institute blogger Sam Roggeveen. But it did reflect a view that China’s increasing regional assertiveness was not a subject to be discussed in public and certainly not in a way that could be construed as critical or confrontational. There was an unstated awareness that whoever held office after September 7 would have to deal with the consequences of their public statements.

Similarly, both Carr and Bishop agreed, in ambiguous terms, that Australia could manage the increasing contradiction between its growing strategic reliance on the US and its almost supplicant economic reliance on China. One could detect a shuffling of feet and a metaphorical diverting of gaze on this complex and challenging question.

Perhaps, although she was less convincing in conventional foreign policy terms, it was Bishop’s new foreign policy strategies that marked her as setting a, if not the, agenda.

Other than in times of international crisis, foreign affairs do not, generally, raise much interest with the voting public. Directly linking foreign affairs to trade and Australia’s economic development may, however, resonate with voters who do not otherwise appreciate the value of diplomatic representation.

Bishop’s push for a “reverse Colombo Plan”, which would send Australian students to study in Asia and, presumably, bring back greater Asian literacy, might also appeal to some younger voters. Bishop’s preference for trade rather than aid also appealed to the prospect of Australian economic growth while assuaging voters who don’t see much benefit in giving money to regional neighbours.

Similarly, while both parties agreed on the need to either increase or re-orient Australia’s international representation, the sub-text for this was that DFAT can expect more cuts at home.

Should the Coalition win government in September, there will no doubt be a lot of pushing and shoving between the minister, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and AuAID. Populist policies do not necessarily equate to good international relations and DFAT in particular has long been the bureaucratic tail that has wagged the government dog. Resistance, and policy compromise, is very likely.

In broadest terms, what also marked the debate was a retreat by both parties to foundational positions: Labor favours multilateralism and international cooperation; the Coalition favours bilateralism and individual arrangements. This is, ideologically, how it has always been: broad brush idealism versus hard-nosed if not always successful real politik.

But it was turning Australia’s foreign relations into an arm of business, for better or worse, or continuing its role as a “creative middle power”, that set apart the two camps. The question will be, to the extent that swinging voters pay any attention to such matters, which will have the greatest appeal. Despite Carr winning the debate on points, Bishop’s economic aspirations were likely to win more swinging votes.

*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University