Making Australian foreign policy – the Abbott government

Chapter 13 of the text book explains the objectives of Australian foreign policy focus mainly on Australia’s national security and economic interests.  The process includes bilateral and multilateral international relationships.  The chapter also discusses the international and domestic constraints on what a government can achieve in pursuing its foreign policy objectives.

Stopping the boats

The Abbott government from its first days in office experienced the impact of international resistance to its foreign policy platform.  A central plank of the Coalition’s election campaign was its promise to ‘stop the boats’ bringing asylum seekers to Australia. This included turning boats back to Indonesia, an action which requires the cooperation of the Indonesian government.  Foreign Affairs minister Julie Bishop previously had been reported as expressing confidence that the Coalition ‘would be able to implement all of its asylum seeker policies, regardless of how the Indonesians viewed them’ but this proved not to be the case.  Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa warned the Abbott government’s asylum seeker policies could damage relations between  the two countries (Roberts, G. 2013, ‘Indonesia’sforeign minister Marty Natalegawa divulges contents of talks with Julie Bishop’, ABC News, 26 September, It was  commented in The Age  that  ‘the message was clear: Jakarta would not be entertaining policies which encroached on its sovereignty, so don’t even bother’ (Heinrichs,  R. 2013, ‘PM stumbling around the international stage’, 6 November,  Abbott was criticised  for unilaterally declaring asylum seeker boats would be turned back, that ‘good foreign policy is not conducted this way’ and ‘the continuing heavy-handed approach is damaging the bilateral relationship (The Age, 2013, ‘Abbott’s boat policy is all at sea’, editorial, 12 November, The failure of Coalition policy was evident when Indonesia refused to accept a boat picked up by an Australian ship and the asylum seekers had to be  taken to Christmas Island instead (Roberts, G. 2013, ABC News, 14 November,   For comment on the Indonesian point of view on this issue see 

Abbott’s attendance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Sri Lanka in November produced a more positive result for his boats policy.  His refusal to engage in the conference debate about Sri Lanka’s human rights record, pursued aggressively by Britain’s prime minister David Cameron, facilitated his negotiations with the Sri Lankan government to prosecute his domestic agenda of stopping the boats.  As part of that process the Australian government gave the Sri Lankan government two retired Australian patrol boats to assist in the detention of asylum seeker boats before they left Sri Lankan waters (Doherty, B. 2013, 1,  ‘Patrol boat diplomacy’, 18 November, Sydney Morning Herald).    Abbott’s refusal to engage with the debate on the human rights issue so he could focus on achieving his domestic policy agenda drew criticism that  it ‘diminished Australia’ (Doherty, ibid). This issue highlights the conflict between Australia’s activities as ‘a good international citizen’ (page 428 of the text book) and the pursuit of national interest and the government of the day’s domestic electoral policy agenda (page 426 of the text book).

National economic objectives and foreign policy

It was explained on page 427 of the text book that national economic objectives are a central element of Australia’s foreign affairs and trade policy.  It was not surprising, therefore, that prime minister Abbott should stress that ‘free trade and foreign investment would be the centrepiece of the Coalition’s agenda to encourage economic growth’ (Rimmer, M. 2013, ‘Taking care of business: Abbott and the Trans-Pacific Partnership’, 2 October,  Clearly  governments cannot go about this unilaterally. The process for achieving these goals involves bilateral and multilateral diplomatic negotiations to reduce barriers to Australian traded good exports and to facilitate foreign investment overseas by Australian companies.  The policy process also includes approving foreign investment in Australia by overseas companies. 

The Abbott government was criticised for making ‘a blunder of the first order’ when the prime minister unilaterally announced a one-year deadline on reaching a free trade agreement to meet its electoral commitment to encourage economic growth through free trade.  It was asserted that because it would be electorally damaging for Abbott to back out of this self-imposed deadline he had provided China with the opportunity ‘to secure major concessions at Australia’s expense’ (Heinrichs. op.cit).  This might include, for example, China exerting pressure on the Australian government to raise the foreign investment review threshold to $1 billion (China Spectator, 2013, ‘Business groups lobby govt on China’, 9 October,

The business lobby and foreign policy

The potential for business groups and companies to influence foreign policy is discussed on page 448 of the text book.  That opportunity was facilitated by the Abbott government when it drew business groups into a consultative process to advise how it might achieve its election commitments on ‘industry, free trade agreements, the G20, the B20 and the economy’.  The process will involve private meetings with the prime minister, ministers and advisers (Osborne, P. 2013, ‘Abbott assures nation he’s “hard at work”‘, 26 September, Business groups and companies have also been lobbying the government seeking ‘sweetheart deals’ to advantage their own commercial interests from free-trade agreements (Rimmer, op.cit).

Electoral issues and foreign policy

As we have seen governments have to take into account the national interest when considering trade policy.  Treasurer Joe Hockey made this clear when announcing his approval of a foreign investment application from Saputo Inc to bid for the Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory company where he stated: ‘Australia is open for business and we welcome foreign investment, when it is not contrary to the national interest’ (Hockey, J. 2013, ‘Foreign Investment Decision’, 12 November, A decision to approve a bid by US company Archer Daniels Midland to take over Australia’s largest agribusiness Graincorp, however, ran into a domestic electoral backlash with strong opposition within the Coalition from some rural Liberal MPs and the Nationals, including cabinet ministers Warren Truss, Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development and Barnaby Joyce, Minister for Agriculture. This issue evoked a comment in the media that the Treasurer might have to add an extra letter to his statement so it would read: ‘Australia is open for business and welcomes foreign investment when it is not contrary to the Nationals’ interest’ (Maiden, M. 2013, ‘Hockey:national or Nationals issue?’, 13 November, Prime Minister Abbott said that the Coalition ‘was very happy’ to have foreign investment in Australia, but that it had to be ‘the right investment, not the wrong investment’ and explained it was the Treasurer’s decision to make.  Union leader, Paul Howes expressed support for the buyout (  The Treasurer has not yet made his decision and has extended the deadline to 17 December


It is evident from the issues discussed here that the Abbott government’s foreign policy is grounded in its domestic policy agenda within a framework of securing Australia’s national security and a strong and healthy national economy.  That process is subject to international and domestic political constraints.

Gwynneth Singleton

19 November 2013





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