Foreign policy and the ALP national conference

AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Foreign policy occupied a surprisingly prominent and controversial place at the ALP national conference. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the most contentious topic was asylum seeker policy – an issue that invariably serves to remind us that domestic and foreign policy cannot either be neatly compartmentalised, nor insulated, from deeply felt moral concerns within the Labor caucus.

As Alex Reilly points out, the conventional wisdom among the Labor hard-heads and the commentariat more generally has rapidly become that this is a potentially toxic political issue and one in which the ALP’s head must rule its heart. It is a message that Bill Shorten has clearly taken on board, as it were, as it supposedly gives him a chance to both enhance his languishing poll numbers and shore up his authority within the party.

While asylum seekers may have grabbed the headlines, other issues were noteworthy for being canvassed at least, even if they have not led to dramatic changes in policy. The ALP is flirting with the possibility of putting some policy space between it and the Coalition on both the status of the US alliance and relations with Palestine – and, by implication, Israel.

Given that all these issues have been virtual no-go, no-differentiation areas of foreign policy for both the major parties for as long as most people can remember, this is not insignificant.

However, it is striking that once in power it is actually less likely that there will be significant change. It is only in opposition or after having hung up one’s political boots that deviations from policy orthodoxy seem to be even thinkable, never mind actionable.

Another case in point may prove to be China. In the hurly-burly of a union-dominated conference, drawing attention to the possible shortcomings of trade deals with China or the pernicious impact of the Trans-Pacific Partnership will go down well with the rank and file, no doubt.

Once in office, however, the prospect of trying to unpick an operational trade agreement with our principal economic partner that was years in the making looks rather implausible. This is especially likely to be the case in the all-too-likely event that the tentative mutterings about redefining the strategic relationship with the US turns out to be something of a conference-inspired thought-bubble, rather than a carefully calibrated attempt to critically reassess the nature of “Australia’s national interest”.

If the ALP conference has done nothing else, though, it has provided a rather compelling illustration of why what may seem to some a rather precious academic affectation is actually merited. The sometimes heated, unresolved and contested debate about what policy should actually be reminds us why the employment of inverted commas is sometimes necessary.

The “national interest” is frequently just what the most powerful political party of the moment says it is. A mature recognition of, and debate about, that underlying political reality really would set the ALP apart. Whether the Labor Party is ready for that is another question.

To pretend that there is seamless and unproblematic coherence about foreign or any other policy is hardly credible, though, in an era of closely monitored and reported national conferences. The public increasingly recognises the gap between rhetoric and reality, even if the major parties still like to pretend otherwise.