Jerusalem embassy
Minister for Women Marise Payne

Australia’s new Foreign Minister Marise Payne has plenty to learn from Julie Bishop’s significant missteps — and indeed non-steps — in the same role.

While Malcolm Turnbull and others have lauded Julie Bishop as a great foreign minister, she was not. Her hectic schedule, regional summits aside, was much more New York and London than Asia — the region with which Australia does the bulk of its trade, and which remains central to growth, not to mention the multiple security concerns amid a hefty two-way tourist trade.

Bishop appeared especially keen to avoid the poorer, strife-torn nations in the region, such as Myanmar and Bangladesh (she visited neither in five years) and Timor-Leste (where she made a whistle-stop 36-hour visit only two months ago). Australia is planning to send collectively almost $1.3 billion in aid to Southeast, East, South and West Asia and has a vested interest in helping people in those nations escape poverty. However, Bishop was much more likely to be seen snapped in the company of Australian film stars than getting her hands dirty visiting the refugee camps around Myanmar, a country whose increasingly shaky new democracy — one being pummelled by the tragic crisis of the Rohingya people — is crying out for help.

Indeed, the 2017 Foreign Affairs White Paper, an initiative of Bishop’s which she fought hard with the Prime Minister’s Office to retain control over, laid out in no uncertain terms a key focus for Australia:

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Australia places high priority on our bilateral relationships in Southeast Asia and on our support for ASEAN. The government is enhancing engagement with the region to support an increasingly prosperous, outwardly-focused, stable and resilient Southeast Asia.

Putting aside the vexed issue of how to deal with China, former and current senior diplomats have told Crikey that there has been little follow-through on prioritising the whole of Southeast Asia. Rather, it’s being done on a piecemeal basis — the present focus on Vietnam is a positive, but there’s almost a complete lack of attention to Myanmar at the other end of the spectrum. During the Rudd-Gillard years, there were multiple visits by prime ministers and foreign ministers, but no cabinet minister has visited at all since the Coalition was elected in 2013.

Canberra’s apparent inability to look the Rohingya crisis in the face has been embarrassing, and has perhaps been hampered by the government’s own unresolved refugee crisis on Manus Island. Sources in Myanmar have said that the country’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, actually admires Australia’s policy.

This week’s launch of an important new book by Australian academics Anthony Ware and Costa Laoutidas on the crisis, Myanmar’s “Rohingya” Conflict, laid out the complexity of a situation that has increasingly been simplified by the international media, because Myanmar will not allow any access to the northern Rakhine State. At the event, former Australian ambassador to Myanmar Chris Lamb promised to send Payne a letter begging her to look closely at the situation and consider what Australia might be able to do.

As a former defence minister, Payne will be aware of the security risks and priorities in a region that is increasingly politically unstable; the threat of radical Islam making a fresh surge is very real. 

This was an issue raised in the White Paper too. “Our humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan is promoting security by meeting the basic needs of vulnerable and mobile populations,” it read, naming three countries where the the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is a clear and present danger.

Canberra is also watching Malaysia tensely, hoping that newly elected veteran Mahathir Mohamad can turn around the trend of his predecessors who supported pro-Islam and Sharia law groups in favor of secularism. Even closer to home, the decision by Indonesian President Joko Widodo to select a leading Islamic cleric as his running mate may play well for him domestically, but has caused ripples here. 

These issues in the region now described by DFAT as the Indo-Pacific are also relevant for Prime Minister Scott Morrison but, given that he faces an election within nine months, his concerns will be far more domestic.

Crikey understands that Turnbull was planning a significant swing through a number of key Southeast Asian nations later this year with plans to visit Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and China. Morrison has already lined up a visit to Indonesia — now the traditional first foreign port of call for new Australian PMs — but Australia can and should do more than the perfunctory box ticking visits Bishop tended to make around the region.

We need to re-learn how to engage in a deep and meaningful way with nations in Southeast Asia, and Payne needs to get out of the hotels and meeting rooms into the cities and countryside and meet some real people.