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Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper: what role for the Parliament?


The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, launched by the Government on 23 November, places a strong emphasis on the role of values and institutions in shaping Australia’s international outlook and interests. It states:

Australia’s values are a critical component of the foundation upon which we build our international engagement. Our support for political, economic and religious freedoms, liberal democracy, the rule of law, racial and gender equality and mutual respect reflect who we are and how we approach the world. They underpin a strong, fair and cohesive society at home and are a source of influence for Australia internationally (p. 2).

Despite this, the role that Australia’s principal democratic institution, its Parliament, might play in advancing the country’s values and interests ‘in a more competitive and contested world’ is not discussed. Indeed, the word ‘parliament’ only appears once in the entire document (with reference to Australia’s work through the aid program to advance women’s representation in Pacific legislatures). 

This omission partly reflects the fact that, in constitutional terms, the Government does not have the prerogative to define the Parliament’s role. It also reflects the fact that when compared to powerful legislatures such as the United States Congress, the Australian Parliament has traditionally played only a very limited role in setting and shaping foreign policy. As two of Australia’s foremost foreign policy experts, Alan Gyngell and Michael Wesley, observed over a decade ago in 2003:

… it is hard to find any significant role played in the formulation of Australian foreign policy by the Federal Parliament. In addition to lacking the capacity to contribute or a formal role in the foreign policy process, Parliament is constrained by the lack of interest (or of incentive to take an interest) in foreign affairs by the majority of parliamentarians (p. 177).   

This statement, while still broadly correct, is perhaps less applicable now than it was in 2003. In important areas such as war powers, trade policy, human rights and international aid and development there have been, in recent years, vocal and persistent calls from some parliamentarians, experts and civil society groups for an increased role for the Parliament.

Perhaps the first and most obvious role Parliament has in helping advance Australia’s values and interests internationally is to scrutinise the White Paper itself. In this context, the decision by the Government not to launch this important policy statement—only the third of its kind—in the Parliament has been lamented by some experts as detracting from the opportunity for debate at this critical juncture in the evolution of Australia’s foreign policy. Nevertheless, Senate Estimates hearings, committee inquiries, and budget debates over the coming months and years will provide an opportunity for the Parliament to clarify and scrutinise the themes, directions and concrete proposals given prominence in the White Paper, some of which include:

  • a commitment to further expand Australia’s diplomatic network over the next ten years (p. 18)
  • the decision to establish a new Australian Pacific Security College to ‘deliver security and law enforcement training at the leadership level’ (p. 103)
  • the decision to increase Australia’s annual humanitarian assistance from $400 million to $500 million a year to help address global crises and conflict (p. 90)
  • the decision to commission a review of Australia’s ‘soft power’ focus and capabilities ‘to ensure we continue to build soft power and exercise influence effectively’ (p. 107)  

All of these initiatives will involve debates about costs, trade-offs and priorities; debates in which the Parliament will necessarily be actively engaged. For example, in the context of a declining overall aid budget, the $100 million increase in annual humanitarian aid will likely involve reductions to country and/or other global programs which will need to be scrutinised and assessed. More broadly, the White Paper has been criticised for offering ‘no sign that the government thinks the foreign policy situation is serious enough to require the commitment of any new resources to the task’.

A second important role for the Parliament is as an institutional expression of Australia’s ‘soft power’; defined by the White Paper as ‘the ability to influence the behaviour or thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas’ (p. 109). In this context, while often modest in its aims and impact, parliamentary diplomacy is an important vehicle for promoting Australia’s values and interests internationally. The Australian Parliament is active in global forums such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) as well as regional bodies such as the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum and the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, to which Australia is an observer. Anthony Bergin from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has recently argued that Australia’s parliamentary diplomacy efforts could be further enhanced:

At a time when the nation’s overseas diplomatic footprint is ranked 20th out of 35 OECD countries, and 18th in the G20 group, there’s room for some creative thinking to identify opportunities to make better use of interested and able parliamentarians to enhance our international presence. One useful measure would be to expand the structured and focused outgoing parliamentary delegations program.

A third possible role for the Parliament is in the area of parliamentary-strengthening and capacity-building in partner countries. The White Paper describes an international environment characterised by the increased use of ‘non-state actors and other proxies, covert and paramilitary operations, economic coercion, cyber attacks, misinformation and media manipulation’ (p. 24). It also observes that ‘some states are active in asserting authoritarian models in opposition to open, democratic governance’ (p. 24). Commenting on the introduction of proposed new laws to better deal with the growing threat of foreign interference in Australia, Rory Medcalf, from the ANU’s National Security College, cites ‘a rising China's unsentimental pursuit of its self-defined interests—at home, abroad and inside other countries’, as well as ‘Russia's brazen involvement in the 2016 US presidential election’.

In this environment, it is arguably more important than ever that alongside other forms of development assistance, Australia invests resources and its recognised expertise to help build more effective and inclusive legislatures in the region. This would enhance transparency and debate in relation to the kinds of practices mentioned above, as well as strengthen democratic resilience.  The Australian Parliament has supported parliamentary strengthening projects in Myanmar, Fiji and other regional countries in partnership with organisations such as the IPU and the UN Development Programme. This kind of work is particularly important in our immediate region given the fragility of representative institutions in some of our Pacific neighbours and, given these countries’ size and growth constraints, their particular vulnerability to economic coercion.  

Ultimately, maintaining a ‘rules-based order’ is an objective that will not only involve questions of future strategic competition between great powers like the US and China. It is also an objective that will increasingly involve debates about the accountabilities between states and their citizens in different national and local contexts when it comes to issues of inclusive development, transparency and foreign influence. Australia’s Parliament can play a positive and practical role in helping our neighbours grapple with these important challenges.

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