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Mr Hockey goes to Washington – so what challenges will he face?

Joe Hockey has been announced as Australia’s next ambassador to the United States. AAP/Lukas Coch

Mr Hockey goes to Washington – so what challenges will he face?

Joe Hockey has been announced as Australia’s next ambassador to the United States. AAP/Lukas Coch

Observers of the Australian-American relationship might be worried. Washington continues to suffer gridlock, with a president hobbled by a Congress deeply divided against itself. US foreign policy in the Middle East remains bogged down without clear goals, and China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea remains unresolved.

Australia’s newly announced ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, now finds himself entering this situation. So will Hockey, a 19-year veteran of the Australian Parliament, be able to navigate an increasingly dysfunctional Washington?

A unique landscape

No one candidate for the ambassador job has ever been perfect, though some have been better prepared than others. Each Australian ambassador comes with strengths and weaknesses, and is supported by a professional diplomatic service. Since 1987, the Australian Embassy has been quietly building the capacity to represent Australian interests in the US Congress.

Following the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomats in most capitals are mandated to work with the host country’s foreign ministry. In the US, however, Congress and the executive are equal branches of government. Diplomatic representation in Washington therefore requires a focus on both branches.

Embassies in Washington that give scant attention to Congress do so at their own peril. Australia has been a leader in tirelessly working the halls of Congress.

Congress is a place that runs on money, relationships and access to information. Current annual spending on lobbying is estimated to be as much as US$6.7 billion. Lobbyists representing foreign interests must register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Diplomats, representing their national interest to members of Congress, are not required to register. Foreign governments also cannot make contributions to political candidates. So, by taking money out of the equation, embassies must rely upon developing strong relationships and providing reliable information to members of Congress.

Successes and challenges

With a five-member team, the Congressional Liaison Office at the Australian Embassy works to follow the sometimes-chaotic events on Capitol Hill while simultaneously promoting Australian interests.

These diplomat-lobbyists have earned a reputation for effectiveness on Capitol Hill. John Lawrence, now the retired chief-of-staff to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said:

The Australian Embassy has an unusually sophisticated and informed congressional relations operation. Not only are they knowledgeable about the topics before the Congress, but they understand the major (and often the minor) players in the Congress, and they assiduously develop and nurture relationships with key players in Washington which are vital when they need action from the Congress or the Administration.

The Australian Embassy in general and the Congressional Liaison Office in particular has had demonstrable examples of success over the years. A few of these include the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA), the E3 visa and the Defence Trade Co-operation Treaty.

While Australia may not have won everything it was after through AUSFTA, it was an important objective of the Howard government. South Korea pursued its free trade agreement at the same time as Australia, yet had to wait until 2007 for the agreement to be signed. Congress finally ratified the South Korean agreement in October 2011, whereas AUSFTA passed Congress in July 2004.

Immigration was not included in AUSFTA. Australia initiated with members of Congress, in particular with the sponsorship of the then-Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, a new class of visa. The E3 gives to Australia 10,500 visa places for “skilled labour”, where skilled means anyone with an undergraduate education. The E3 visa offers a two-year and renewable right to work in the US. This unique class of visa does not have a labour market test.

Since its signing only Australians have use of this class of visa. More recently, Australia’s monopoly on this visa class has come under threat. Republican congressman James Sensenbrenner sponsored H.R. 3730, which if passed would shift unused E3 visas to Ireland and alter the definition of “skilled labour” to include those who have completed high school.

In 2010, the US Senate ratified two defence trade co-operation treaties – one with Australia and the other with the UK. Prior to its signing the US had placed an embargo on the transfer of US-sourced defence materiel without the US government’s prior approval. The treaty changed this – it permits the transfer of some US-sourced defence equipment without prior government approval.

Exempting Australia from requiring export licences for defence-related items thus signals a high level of trust and a significant upgrading of the alliance.

Numerous other challenges and opportunities remain in the US Congress. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is one test the embassy will have to confront in the coming months. Other undiscovered trials for the Australia-American relationship lurk in the halls of the Congress.

Hockey faces many challenges, but he does not face them alone. Pursuing Australia’s national interests on Capitol Hill is one place where he can best use his parliamentary skills.