As the sun set on 2017, the Australian Government issued its ‘2017 Foreign Policy White Paper’ setting out its current philosophy on global engagement and enunciating its forward postures.
The 124-page document was the first such reflection in 14 years during which time Australia has had six very different prime Ministers (PM Rudd version 2 included).
Yet notwithstanding the frequent change of resident at The Lodge the general positioning of Australia’s foreign policy, engagements and priorities has been remarkably consistent over that decade and a half.
The continued and overwhelming focus being on the ‘Asia Pacific’ but with a commitment to “strengthening and diversifying partnerships across the globe (“Asia Pacific” now being rebadged as the “indo pacific” to widen the backyard to include Indonesia and India).
In terms of the Islamic world, the Indonesia Australia comprehensive economic partnership is referenced as being able to “unlock future growth opportunities for Australia and Indonesia” but this apart the document singularly fails to pay other than lip service to the Muslim world.
I have to say that working very closely with DFAT, Austrade and Trade and Investment Queensland I, and others, see firsthand how hard our peers work in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) but an opportunity has been lost in this document to enunciate the opportunities and reliance’s we share with the Arab world.
Reflecting on the White Paper, it could have easily enunciated Australia’s focus on its own backyard but have paid equal attention to MENA , Latin America and elsewhere : it wasn’t as if it where some university submission limited to 10,000 words it was instead the first of its kind in a decade and a half with the full resources of a federal government: even the Agricultural competitive White Paper was a more extensive document.
References to the Middle East, of course, appear in the document: “we are building stronger economic partnerships with …. The Middle East and Africa (MEA)” but it misses a genuine opportunity to promote this most critical of relationships.
At a time when we in this field work night and day to raise the profile of MEA it is regrettable that the only real references to the region are to gender equality and the fight against terrorism – both absolutely and laudably correct to mention – but this should have been counterbalanced by identifying the specific benefits of our MENA relationships – this document is a lost opportunity in that regard and I fear won’t help the genuine hard work being undertaken by our Ambassadors, and those in DFAT, Austrade and elsewhere.
An example of this lost opportunity can be found in the many sections dealing with climate change, food and water security. These issues are nowhere a greater risk to life, and the quality of life, than in the MENA region.
In my experience, the region leads the world in climate abatement research and application. Economic recalibrations underway in the region to develop new climate-friendly industries and the priority is given to them in a range of 2030 visions is unrivalled globally and as I have mentioned in previous articles is embedded in Islam itself.
The opportunity to recognise MENA’s world-leading expertise in climate change is an example of one of the more obvious lacunae in this document which, nevertheless, finds time to applaud India and Chinas climate change abatement profiles.
This is perhaps a symptom of the report itself – yes we live and operate in the Indio Pacific and yes China has a dominance in our economic and security thinking but this White Paper is far from the “comprehensive framework” it promotes itself as.
MENA has repeatedly told us that they have an open door when it comes to Australia/MENA Trade. It is time for Australia’s politicians and business leaders to use every forum possible to advance this most crucial of trade relationships.
Having spent the last paragraphs critiquing the omissions I have to say that one omission I can live with however is that the ‘T’ word doesn’t appear once and this time The Donald can’t blame ‘fake media’.