Donald Trump

Bill Shorten won himself a rebuke from Malcolm Turnbull, but probably also a lot of voter sympathy, when he described Donald Trump (or at least some of his views) as “barking mad”. Now he’s got some support from Greens leader Richard Di Natale, who told the ABC’s Insiders yesterday that Shorten’s remark was no more than “a statement of the bleeding obvious”.

Foreign policy is an odd sort of election issue. When it matters, it can matter a great deal; foreign policy issues split the Labor Party in 1916 and again in 1955, and they split the Liberals in the 1970s. But most of the time, it slips beneath the radar, with voters and politicians both preferring to focus on domestic matters — to the extent that they talk about policy at all.

We are very different in that respect from the United States. America has enormous power to do harm or sometimes good in the world, so it’s impossible for a presidential candidate to avoid questions about how they would use that power. Australia, as a much smaller player, has no such worries, and has mostly contracted out the big decisions of foreign policy to the US.

Hence the focus on Trump. When foreign policy does come up in our campaigns, the relationship with the US is usually the central concern.

That makes it hard to get a debate going this time around, since the two leaders are obviously so very close together in their views. No doubt Turnbull would agree with Shorten’s characterisation of Trump, although he maintained — probably correctly — that it was undiplomatic to express it publicly.

Tanya Plibersek, Labor’s foreign affair’s spokesperson, tried to achieve some differentiation last week in a speech to the Lowy Institute, in which she supported the US alliance but stressed the need to “be independent” within it:

“We are more valuable as an ally if we act confidently and independently within the alliance.

“We should have disagreed in 2003, as the decision to invade and occupy Iraq was such a terrible mistake with such long-trailing consequences.”

Coming from Labor’s Left, Plibersek is no doubt sincere in her reservations. But it would be more intellectually honest if she acknowledged that that assessment of the Iraq War was controversial within the ALP, and that if Labor under Kim Beazley had been in power at the time, it’s very likely Australia would have fallen in behind the US anyway.

The shadow minister was on firmer ground when she drew attention to the differences between Labor and the Greens (a sensitive point, since her own seat is one of those that the Greens are threatening). The Greens would take further the desire to be “independent” of US foreign policy and withdraw from the alliance — a position Plibersek described as “drawn from a sense of impotence”.

But as American politics advances further into the surreal, the attempt to shut down debate on the merits and dangers of the US alliance seems misguided. At the very least there needs to be an open examination, of the sort that neither major party has yet undertaken, of how we got into Iraq and how we can avoid anything like it in the future.

As with several other issues (think refugees, the coal industry and live animal exports), the Greens have staked a claim to be heard — not by some sinister “hijacking of the debate”, but by expressing a point of view that has widespread public support but is not being taken seriously by either the government or the opposition.

Bipartisanship is not a bad thing, least of all when it comes to foreign policy. But it can be dangerous if it results in important questions being swept under the carpet. The rise of Donald Trump might help to focus people’s minds on that danger.