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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4464

Mr McMULLAN (Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance) (3:40 PM) —It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to participate in this discussion, but it is a rather strange piece of timing by the shadow minister that leads me to do so. After all the time that the parliament has been sitting, we get an MPI from the shadow minister for foreign affairs when he knows that both the cabinet ministers in the portfolio are overseas. It does not give great confidence in his capacity to lead the discussion. But we are quite happy to take it on.

There is another very interesting element in how this MPI came about. I think that if the Speaker did a forensic assessment he would find that there is actually an old signature overwritten and the member for Goldstein’s put in its place. I am sure that when I was on the tactics committee for the opposition we drafted exactly the same thing. We must have left it behind in the tactics committee room and they found it after all this time and thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ and Andrew signed it and sent it in!

What it describes, if you take a step back 12 months, is the situation of foreign policy failure in this region by the previous government which we have taken six months to fix. I noticed of course that, while the MPI refers to the Asia-Pacific, the shadow minister did not mention the Pacific once. It is not surprising. Our relationships with all the countries in the Pacific were in chaos. I will leave my colleague the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs to deal with that in greater detail, but they were in chaos. And we have taken a long time to start to turn around the damage that was done by the arrogance, ignorance and incompetence of the previous government.

It has taken us six months to repair a large number of our international relationships. It did not take us very long because we started by signing the Kyoto protocol, which changed the perception of countries in our region about our willingness to carry our share of the burden and participate. It did not take us very long because, apparently unbeknownst to the shadow minister, the Prime Minister made his first overseas visit to Asia to Indonesia and had a very good meeting with President Yudhoyono, who of course he knows quite well. That has substantially enhanced the character and standing of our relationship with that crucially important neighbour, Indonesia.

I do not feel the slightest need to be defensive about foreign policy issues when comparing the performance of this government over six months with the 12 years of our predecessors—12 years that included the greatest foreign policy failure of a modern Australian government: the commitment to the war in Iraq and the insidious influence that had on our relationships with countries throughout the region who made their judgements about us by the character of that commitment. I am very proud of the foreign policy progress we have made in the region and more broadly. I want particularly to talk about the relationship with China and the relative capacity of any government to have a good relationship with China at the same time as we have a good relationship with Japan and India.

I want first, though, to go to this extraordinary proposition that somehow or other the previous government was passionately committed to the quadrilateral arrangement and that we no longer are. Strangely, on 9 July last year the then Minister for Defence, Dr Nelson, said that he had assured his Chinese counterpart that Australia was not interested in forming a security pact with Japan, the United States and India as a regional buffer to China. He said:

I have explained the nature of, and basis of, our trilateral strategic dialogue with Japan and the United States. But I have also reassured China that so-called quadrilateral dialogue with India is not something that we are pursuing.

Didn’t the leader tell you that is what he said? Hasn’t he told you that he said you did not support it? Are you saying that the leader forgot to tell you that he does not support that dialogue? Then again, on 8 September the foreign minister said—

Mr Robb interjecting

Mr McMULLAN —He said that in China to his Chinese counterpart. The foreign minister said that expanding the strategic dialogue to include India was not on the table for the moment. ‘Nothing like that is going to happen anytime soon; we are looking more in a general sense at progressing the relationship,’ he said. Let’s get real. That is the position that the previous government held. We think the relationship with all those countries and the capacity to engage in good relations with them is important. I want to start by talking about Japan and then I want to say something about India.

We have, it is true, a very important relationship with Japan. There is no controversy about that proposition. Everybody who has ever engaged in any foreign policy discussion in Australia knows that the relationship with Japan is as fundamental to Australia’s future, economically, diplomatically and strategically, as any of our other relationships. We share and continue to share a comprehensive strategic security and economic partnership with Japan, and our relationship with Japan is at a historically high level of substance and intimacy. On 9 April, in his ASPI speech, the foreign minister said:

Japan has been our closest and most consistent friend in our region for many years.

Australia and Japan have many things in common, including our shared values, our democratic outlook and our shared regional engagement.

Japan is a key economic, security and strategic partner of central importance.

It does not actually sound like the minister is referring to a country that we are snubbing or ignoring, and of course six cabinet ministers have visited in the first six months. Very soon the opposition will be complaining that too many people are travelling. As soon as the figures come out they will be saying, ‘Too many people are going around the place,’ but today they are saying that there are not enough. Mr Smith has been to Japan twice and he is visiting again in late June. Mr Crean visited very early, in January. Minister Carr, Minister Ferguson, Mr Burke and Minister Wong have visited. The Treasurer is visiting on 13 and 14 June and of course the Prime Minister will visit twice this year, including next week’s dedicated bilateral visit as well as the G8 summit in Hokkaido, to which the shadow minister correctly referred and which we regard as very important. We are very pleased to be invited as an outreach partner by Japan and we will enthusiastically respond. We are going there with concrete propositions to put, consistent with the interest which Japan has shown in the relationship by inviting us.

We have also been actively engaged in the relationship with Korea, which I was pleased the foreign minister did eventually mention but to which he gave no serious consideration. I would like, if time permits, to come back to that, but it is a relationship that I regard as underestimated as a key element in our North-east Asian relationship.

I want to turn to the other relationship to which the shadow minister referred at some length—that with India. I feel rather strongly about this because in 1996 we left our relationship with India on an upward trajectory. It was ignored for a decade and then the previous government suddenly decided they might be able to do something—

Mr Robb —That’s not true.

Mr McMULLAN —I can tell you why it was on an upward trajectory: I put it there and I left some propositions for the previous Prime Minister to pursue. He did nothing about them. I know that for a fact, because they were propositions which I set down, invitations which I arranged for him to receive which he never took up. That is not something that I imagined. That is something I know I did on behalf of this country, and I thought it was a useful thing. I was rather hoping it would not be that Prime Minister who took up the invitation, because I was hoping we would win the election, but, when we lost, I was looking forward to Prime Minister Howard taking it up and he never did. I thought it was a very sad event and I feel really disappointed about it. But the relationship was on an upward trajectory, and they were underplayed, underestimated and undersupported for a decade until we saw, shortly after the United States saw it, the fact that we might be able to sell some uranium there. It was never a central element of the modern strategic assessment of the previous government.

If you look at anybody who has taken a sensible analysis of any country’s position in the 21st century, particularly Australia’s, the key relationships are the North-east Asian relationships that we fundamentally need to focus on and our friends in Asia and South Asia. We finally have to recognise that we are an Indian Ocean country with significant relationships with the countries of South Asia. It has unfortunately been left to us to repair that decade of neglect, and I am determined to do that. It is not going to be built on a one-issue strategy of saying, ‘We have a brilliant idea. We’re going to sell uranium to India,’ which will fail. I think that internationally that was never going to be a successful proposition. But I really deplore the attitude of the previous government to India, and to come now with this bit of cant and pretend that there was some great relationship with India which is being underplayed—

Mr Billson interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Order! The member for Dunkley will desist.

Mr Billson interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The member for Dunkley is ignoring the chair.

Mr McMULLAN —We have, however, very important relationships to pursue with a whole range of other countries in our region. We have a significant need to enhance our relationship with ASEAN, and I do not think this needs to be a matter of partisan controversy in this country. Everybody in Australia knows that there is no sensible way forward for Australia without good relationships with the countries of ASEAN. I was very disappointed with the early years of the Howard government and its relationship with some of those countries but, by the end, I think we were on a trajectory that was consistent with that which the previous Labor government had and which all governments should maintain.

I am not going to say they did everything wrong. I think they started badly with China and I think they started badly with ASEAN, but by the end they had got back on a trajectory which I thought had some merit. There is absolutely no sign that it is in any danger. There is absolutely no sign that there is some concern in the countries of ASEAN that Australia is not enthusiastically cooperating with them institutionally through the Secretary-General of ASEAN, with whom I have had the opportunity to have meetings directly and who I think is offering very significant possibilities for enhancing Australia’s participation in the region and for strengthening the role of ASEAN in the region—which I regard as an unqualified plus.

There is no sign that the governments of Singapore or Malaysia think that the Australian government is not actively engaged in their concerns. And we do have an opportunity, which the previous government did not have, through no fault of theirs, to enhance our relationship with Thailand because the military government has gone and democracy has been restored. We have the capacity to re-establish that relationship and we are actively engaged in that process. So to say that those relationships are on a downward trajectory is entirely a hallucination. There is no evidence for that whatsoever. These are governments with whom we have a very good relationship and with whom we intend to maintain a very good relationship. Most of them are ones where the relationship is already good. In some instances, as with Thailand, for reasons that are understandable and were inevitable, they are going to be substantially improved. However, with regard to the Pacific, we have also been left a record of chaos and resentment which has been substantially improved by the direct intervention of the Prime Minister.

Mr Robb —Have you looked at the $400 million? Was any of that ours?

Mr McMULLAN —It was lost during your term. If it was ours, you lost it. But, no, clear evidence is that it was not. In fact it was in your term, so I would not go on too much about that. The fact is that we were left a legacy of chaos and resentment which the Prime Minister has gone a long way to improving, particularly through the Port Moresby Declaration and through the establishment of the Pacific Partnerships for Development. If any of our neighbours were to read the speech which the shadow minister just made—and the only saving grace for our diplomatic relations is that none of them will—all the countries of the Pacific would be appalled to find that in a speech about the Asia-Pacific not one country of the Pacific was mentioned. Why would the shadow minister not mention them? Because there is no story to tell. We had cancelled ministerial forum after ministerial forum with Papua New Guinea because we had no ministerial-level relationship—none at all. That is not a controversial statement; that is simply a statement of fact. There had been none; they had been cancelled. We needed to do a lot of hard work to restore our relationship with all the countries in our region. The Prime Minister has transformed our relationship in a positive manner by the Port Moresby Declaration and by the initiative he took in going to Papua New Guinea and the step he took to build on ministerial relationships. (Time expired)