Foreign policy is not Tony Abbott’s strong suit. Bruce Haigh, a retired diplomat and regular political commentator for Crikey, decided to give the prime minister-elect some tips.

Stay out of the day-to-day issues of foreign policy. Intervene when the presence of a prime minister will make a difference.  Be mindful of Kevin Rudd’s over-intervention and lack of consultation with neighbours, and Gillard’s under-involvement. The art of a prime minister with respect to successful forays into foreign policy is knowing when to press the appropriate button.

The art of conducting a successful foreign policy is to have an intelligent, mature and sophisticated person as foreign minister. To this end, Malcolm Turnbull should be given the job. The foreign minister conveys the messages Australia wishes to send to the international community. The manner in which those messages are conveyed is important, so image is a key tool in the knapsack of a foreign minister.

Believe it or not Australia’s international image has taken a hit in recent times. It’s no good putting out the message that Australia is a just and fair country and the greatest thing since sliced bread, and then detaining refugees indefinitely as ASIO has done, apparently in order to secure the support of the Sri Lankan government in stopping boats. The UN Human Rights Committee recently identified 143 violations of the UN Human Rights Convention with respect to these refugees. They referred to their treatment as cruel, inhumane and degrading. These findings do not go unnoticed or unremarked internationally. Your frontbenchers Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison found nothing amiss when they visited Sri Lanka recently; however the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Nari Pillay, did. She found that Tamils continue to be treated as second-class citizens in the country of their birth and many are being persecuted.

“The conduct of regional foreign policy does not require boxing gloves.”

Indications of an early visit to Indonesia by you are welcome. Full and frank discussions are unlikely to occur, that is not the Indonesian way of doing business. Under these circumstances it would be wise to  get some briefing and coaching on how to read Indonesian body language and the nuanced method of conveying information. The conduct of regional foreign policy does not require boxing gloves.

All regional and Pacific heads of state should be treated with the greatest of respect. The impact of Australian decision-making on fragile political systems, economies and egos should be carefully assessed .

The long-term viability of refugee policies with respect to Manus and Nauru, not to mention the refugees, should be very carefully weighed. Bombast has no place in the making and conduct of foreign policy.

The instinct of not intervening in Syria is sound. Already with the delays caused by uncertainties in the US political system, talk amongst the major players has begun. It might be considered wise to get the UN talking through the good offices of Australia’s current presidency of the UN Security Council; it might surprise what suggestions and compromises might emerge. Consider the possibility that President Bashar al-Assad may be little more than a figurehead, kept in place by mutually beneficial arrangements between powerful competing forces within the ruling party. He may in fact not be in a position to deliver on undertakings.

The new brand of American foreign policy to shoot first and ask questions later must be resisted. It is not good for our friendship with the US and it does little to promote friendships elsewhere. We should be using our time on the UNSC to find the middle ground, particularly now with our presidential responsibilities.

Our relationships in the Middle East need to be better tuned and more even-handed, particularly with respect to Palestine and Israel.

We can use our time on the UNSC to push for the strengthening of international law, particularly with respect to multinational companies seeking to evade tax.

Australia should seek to reduce the prospect of a regional arms race. It should develop a relationship with China independent of the agenda and pressure being applied on us by the US.

Our concerns for the environment, global warming, protection of fisheries and whales should be firmly and reasonably put. This is a combined prime ministerial and foreign minister responsibility. Australia needs to be taken more seriously than just in the world of sport; however, reliance on Australian sport to deliver international prestige would be a risky undertaking on recent past performances.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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