Our National President, Margaret Reynolds writes about the challenges Penny Wong has inherited in her role as Foreign Minister.

She is surrounded by alpha males controlling the defence and security debate, convinced that only deadly military weapons can secure a safe future for Australia. She heads a department historically seen as weak and irrelevant by too many men in power. They dismiss diplomacy and negotiation as a soft option preferring military dependence on old allies like the United Kingdom and United States.

The Department of Foreign Affairs is too often sidelined by the urgency of political agendas led by the Departments of Prime Minister and Defence. Prime Ministers have the political clout to lead international decision making, but too few listen and respond to the advice of diplomats, who have usually spent many years developing their understanding of the range of historic, cultural and economic issues that affect international relations.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Department of Defence are driven by competing cultures and there is limited opportunity for genuine partnership and cooperation. Defence staff are pragmatic and results focused, while Foreign Affairs staff must recognise the complexity of factors to be considered in understanding and negotiating policies which best serve the Australian national interest and contribute to global harmony . The respective departmental budgets reflect the influence they wield in government decision making. The 2022 Budget papers highlight the relative value placed on diplomacy versus military solutions.

Department of Defence – $48.6 billion (2022/23)

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – $6.6 billion (2022/23)

We can only assume that the Australian Government places a much higher priority on preparing for war rather than negotiating for peace.

The recent AUKUS decision to entrust our future security to old allies has given the green light to dramatically increase the Defence Budget with projected numbers for the next three years demonstrating that taxpayer funds have been prioritised for war.

Department of Defence:

    • $52.1 billion (2023/24)
    • $54.2 billion (2024/25)
    • $56.6 billion (2025/26)       

No doubt it would be naïve to suggest that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade requires a matching increase to assist its role in prevention of conflict! Arguments that Health, Housing Education and a range of cost-of-living support measures are much more urgent than Australia’s acquisition of submarines and missiles are ignored by a passive media which only shows any animation about the so-called ‘threat of China’.

Our Foreign Minister has few allies in a parliament convinced it must rely on the strategic advice of those who urged former Prime Minister Scott Morrison to accept AUKUS and perpetuate an Australian arms race that delights former ministers now benefitting from their friendly relationships with the overseas arms industry.

Imagine the task of juggling the expectations of a complex Foreign Affairs portfolio with the strident demands of political colleagues, the Defence Department, the Australian Strategic Intelligence Organisation, the United State Department, the Pentagon, the British Ministry of Defence, and a media commentariat determined to sell an urgent war narrative?

Penny Wong has inherited that perennial Australian assumption that our government will meekly accept directives from London and Washington. As part of the British Empire, Australia gave unquestioning military support to colonial and European wars, which between 1890 and 1945 took the lives of 100,000 Australians. Since the Korean War, Australians have joined United States led invasions of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The death rate of civilians in these modern conflicts is horrendous and this war experience has contributed to the current high rates of returning Australian soldiers’ suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Despite Australians’ devastating experience of war, few of our elected representatives advocate a fresh independent foreign and defence policy appropriate for a middle power in the Asia Pacific region. It is rare for Treasury economic rationalists to question expenditure by the Defence Department with the same rigour it demands when assessing increases in financing essential public services. The Government’s Expenditure Review Committee ruthlessly analyses the cost benefit of all government programs and policies, but apparently remains silent on the negative impacts of the Australian Government perpetuating its  investment policy of supporting   other nations’ wars.

Many Australians support Penny Wong’s diplomatic agenda because it is obviously the only calm and strategic way that we can avoid the dominance of so many military minded men.

Young people understand that they will be the ones who suffer from war both as possible conscripts and because an underfunded public sector will continue to disproportionately impact on their futures. Refugees and new citizens from war torn nations have chosen Australia because they want to live in a harmonious multicultural society.

Women now influence a great deal of our public policy decision making in the national parliament, so as voters we must ensure that as our representatives, they continue to question current defence policy and support the efforts of those working for a more realistic and balanced foreign policy. We all need to applaud our Foreign Minister as an advocate for rational diplomacy and make it clear that we reject the current war games mentality in Canberra.

We also need to insist that as a mature nation we will no longer take our defence instructions from overseas.