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Published in CRIKEY.COM 10 SEPTEMBER 2013

The art of conducting a successful foreign policy is to have an intelligent, mature and sophisticated person as foreign minister. To this end Malcolm Turnbull should be given the job. The foreign minister conveys the messages Australia wishes to send to the international community. The manner in which those messages are conveyed is important, so image is an important tool in the knapsack of a foreign minister.

Believe it or not Australia’s international image has taken a hit in recent times. It’s no good putting out the message that Australia is a just and fair country and the greatest thing since sliced bread and then detaining refugees indefinitely as ASIO has done, apparently in order to secure the support of the Sri Lankan government in stopping boats.

The UN Human Rights Committee recently identified 143 violations of the UN Human Rights Convention with respect to these refugees being held in indefinite detention. They referred to their treatment as cruel, inhumane and degrading. These findings do not go unnoticed or unremarked in the international community.

Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison found nothing amiss when they visited Sri Lanka recently; however the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Nari Pillay, did. She identified what many people have known for some time, which is that Tamils continue to be treated as second class citizens in the country of their birth and many are being persecuted. She said that the actions of the regime in Sri Lanka were undermining the rule of law and that democracy was being eroded. For this reason the Canadian government will not be attending the CHOGM in Sri Lanka later in the year. In order to minimise her possible involvement in controversy the Queen will also not be attending.

Indications of an early visit to Indonesia by the Australian Prime Minister are to be welcomed. Full and frank discussions are unlikely to occur, that is not the Indonesian way of doing business. Under these circumstances it would be wise to get some briefing and coaching on how to read Indonesian body language and the nuanced method of conveying information. The conduct of regional foreign policy does not require boxing gloves.

All Regional and Pacific Heads of State should be treated with the greatest of respect. The impact of Australian decision making should be carefully assessed on fragile political systems, economies and egos.

The long term viability of refugee policies with respect to Manus and Nauru, not to mention the refugees should be very carefully weighed. Bombast has no place in the making and conduct of foreign policy.

The instinct of not intervening in Syria is sound. Already with the delays caused by uncertainties in the US political system, talk amongst the major players has begun. It might be considered wise to get the UNGS talking through the good offices of Australia’s Presidency of the UNSC, it might surprise what other suggestions and compromises might emerge. Consider the possibility that President Assad may be little more than a figure-head, kept in place by mutually beneficial arrangements between powerful competing forces within the ruling party. He may in fact not be in a position to deliver on undertakings.

The new brand of American foreign policy to shoot first and ask questions later must be resisted. It is not good for our friendship with the US and it does little to promote friendships within the wider international community. We should be using our time on the UNSC to find the middle ground, particularly now with our presidential responsibilities.

Our relationships in the Middle East need to be better tuned and more even handed, particularly with respect to Palestine and Israel.

We can use our time on the UNSC to seek better international policies toward the treatment of refugees and we can pursue an agenda that seeks the strengthening of international law particularly with respect to multinational companies seeking to evade tax.

Australia should seek to reduce the prospect of a regional arms race. It should develop a relationship with China independent of the agenda and pressure being applied on us by the US.

Our concerns for the environment, global warming, protection of fisheries and whales should be firmly and reasonably put. This is a combined prime ministerial and foreign minister responsibility. Australia needs to be taken more seriously than just in the world of sport; however reliance on Australian sport to deliver international prestige would be a risky undertaking on recent past performances.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.