page loader

Published The Drum May 4 2011.
On Line Opinion May 6 2011
Canberra Times May 9 2011

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and her advisers, should be kept away from forays into foreign policy; her craven outpouring to the US Congress has been followed by confused diplomatic messages whilst in Beijing.

Prior to her recent visit to China, Gillard announced that during high-level talks she would be raising the issue of human rights. Not a smart thing for an Australian head of government to do before a first visit to the Middle Kingdom.

The visit was important in terms of establishing an initial rapport between the heads of two major trading partners. China’s poor record on human rights certainly warrants the strongest condemnation by Australia and other countries which have some leverage, however slight.

The problem for Gillard was that after her all-the-way-with-the-USA speech in Washington, raising human rights with China looked like complying with an American request, particularly as she made such a song and dance about raising human rights prior to her departure.

My feeling is that behind closed doors she received a less than warm reception from the Chinese leadership. It would have been pointed out that the strength of the Australian dollar was causing a reappraisal on the viability of some development projects in Australia. The increasing attractiveness of options in other countries would have been spelt out.

In a state of real concern if not panic the Gillard B Team then announced, at the end of the visit, the prospect of defence co-operation with China as a response to veiled threats.

Even if the scenario described above does not represent what took place, the way Gillard chose to play her hand was extraordinarily inept. If she was serious about improving human rights in China and the defence co-operation proposal was on the agenda she should have made it conditional on verifiable improvement in China’s human rights record.

As it was she led (trumpeted) her human rights agenda at the beginning of the visit, only to depart with a proposal for ships visits and live firing exercises – proposals which no doubt pleased but bemused the Chinese.

Why on earth would a country criticise another country’s human rights record and then propose defence co-operation – without conditionality. It makes no sense at all, unless seen in the light of a concession to Chinese supremacy.

Gillard went to China with an American brief and returned with a Chinese prospectus. That, in summary, is the reality of Chinese influence and power with respect to Australia.

Defence co-operation has been the cornerstone of our relationship with the United States for 69 years. During one short visit to China Gillard laid the foundation for another. Australia cannot have defence co-operation with both the Chinese and the Americans.

Where was Rudd when these momentous decisions were taken? Absent on a self-indulgent doddle. Due to the poisonous relationship between Rudd and Gillard, he can never be by her side overseas and advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Prime Minister, her department and advisers has all but been filtered out.
Responding to the slaying of Osama bin Laden, Gillard said she was pleased to hear of his death, as did Abbott. Understanding, as they do, the deleterious knock on effect with terror groups and within the broader Islamic community, I feel confident that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs would not have proposed or recommended that such a statement be made.

Bin Laden’s death at the hands of the US Sheriff, our erstwhile ally, may well galvanise the appetite for terrorist attacks on the West: this will require careful vigilance. The fact of his death in such a manner will be compounded within the Muslim world by the action of burying him at sea.

This dysfunctional government is delivering damaging diplomacy.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.