After a long wait, Penny Wong finally became Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs this week. A stalwart of the Australian Labor Party with 20 years in the parliament behind her, Wong has served as the Opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs for the last four years and is no stranger to the international community. Within 24 hours after both Wong and the freshly elected Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, were sworn in by the Governor-General, they were on a plane to Tokyo for the Quad Summit. Wong was finally in her element.
The election in Australia on Saturday produced a radically different and diverse parliament of Australia to past governments on both sides. While the opposing Labor party won just enough seats to form a majority government, there was a movement of ‘teal’ pro-climate change independents, other independent candidates, and the Australian Greens winning seats away from long-held safe seats of the major parties. This included Australia’s (now former) Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. With this increasingly diverse parliament and given that the Labor party has not held government in a decade, much has been speculated about how Australia’s foreign policy might change under a left-wing administration.
The fact that foreign policy has remained un-politicised in Australia is a good thing for the country, but more so for relationships with partners in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
One of the first things to understand about Australia’s foreign policy is that it is relatively bipartisan. This was on display during an election debate between Wong and Marise Payne (the now former Foreign Minister in the Morrison Government); the two political opponents calmly discussed issues of state capability, budget, and leadership. They also debated thornier issues such as how Australia has managed its relationship with China, but cordially, nonetheless. The fact that foreign policy has remained un-politicised in Australia is a good thing for the country, but more so for relationships with partners in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. A strength, if you will, of Australia’s Westminster system.
To this end, the heavy issues of Australia’s foreign policy will remain the same. To the speculators and journalists looking for a grab on China—Australia’s position won’t change. Australia will continue to express its concerns about an increasingly assertive China exerting its influence in the Indo-Pacific.
We will hear about the militarisation of the South China Sea, China’s security arrangements with the Solomon Islands, and the issues of cyber security and technology. We can expect continuity with the strengthening of the bilateral relationship with India, especially in terms of trade, but also in the multilateral spheres such as the Quad and the G20. The international community will continue to see Australia focusing on its bilateral relationship with the United States (US), as its only treaty-ally partner.
But having said all of that, we can expect some significant changes in how Australia approaches its foreign policy and the role of diplomacy. For context, one might compare the new Albanese Government’s approach to New Zealand. Prime Minister Ardern’s distinctively progressive politics is carried out internationally through Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand’s first female Indigenous Foreign Minister
. Issues-wise, Ardern foregrounds climate change as one of the pressing issues for the Indo-Pacific and reflects her domestic political agenda. Ardern’s approach to the major powers needs to be understood in the nuance—Ardern remains steadfastly pro-US but is not anti-China. This Ardern-style foreign policy is what can also be expected from the Albanese Government.
At this starting point of not just celebrating Australia’s multiculturalism but actually placing it front and centre, many around the world might likely see Australia through a new lens, one that no longer foregrounds its Anglo-colonial history.
Firstly, Albanese appointed Malaysia-born Penny Wong to the foreign affairs portfolio - appropriate given that over 50 percent of Australians have at least one parent born overseas. Australia will implement a First Nations Foreign Policy
—Wong’s inclusive nod to the oldest continuing living civilisation in the world. Through an Ambassador for First Nations
people will see their practices, voices, and traditions weaved into how Australia engages with the world. At this starting point of not just celebrating Australia’s multiculturalism but actually placing it front and centre, many around the world might likely see Australia through a new lens, one that no longer foregrounds its Anglo-colonial history.
Secondly, the threat of climate change will also come to the front of Australia’s foreign policy under Wong’s leadership. This could already be seen at the Quad Leaders’ Summit, where the Albanese framed climate change as
one of the biggest threats facing the Indo-Pacific. A re-framing of climate change as a ‘security threat’ was likely appreciated by Prime Minister Modi, given the extreme weather in India
during the last few months.
Thirdly, Australia’s approach to diplomacy will change. Before Wong boarded her flight to Tokyo, she sent a video message to the Pacific Islands. Wong talked of being part of a ‘Pacific Family
’, and that Australia would ‘listen because we care what the Pacific has to say’. This listening-first style of diplomacy will be extended beyond the Pacific. And we can expect this approach to relationships across Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. Wong has already committed to increasing the government’s focus on Southeast Asia, demonstrating she is more likely to broaden Australia’s efforts rather than focus on binary major power competition.
With the new Albanese government, the Indo-Pacific has a lot to look forward to with the new Albanese government. Fundamentally, Australia’s position won’t change but we will see a new style in approaching the region. What the Indo-Pacific and Australia’s partners can be sure of, is that regardless of your politics, Wong is a steady set of hands who can be relied upon.
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