It's time for Australia to reclaim sovereignty


It's time for Australia to reclaim sovereigntyThere are two choices that help define the role of a state that aspires to have a meaningful sovereign role in the world. Governments must choose whether they subscribe to the ideal of a rules-based international order, or whether they merely pay lip service to this order, believing that the world is actually governed by competing powers? Following on from this, the question of how governments conduct their foreign policy — whether it is hegemonic, equal status, or in a tributary style — arises. 

Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, are all 'smaller' states than Australia . Yet they exercise more international sovereignty than does Australia (I define sovereignty as the exclusive right of governments to exercise authority within their territory. The UN, as a rules-based international order, rests on the convention that all sovereign states, large or small, possess equal sovereignty) because they proceed from the ideal of a rules-based international order and because they conduct their foreign relations with all countries — large, medium or small — as formal equals within that order. They participate in the UN and its agencies, and have earned widespread respect for their independence and good international citizenship.

The other extreme was the communist regimes set up in Eastern Europe after World War 2. These were essentially tributary states. Though retaining some of the traditional attributes of sovereignty — parliaments, flags, anthems and armies, they were satellite states of the Soviet Union. While paying lip service to the UN ideals, they voted in the UN as directed by Moscow. These states had no faith in a rules-based international order — after all, the League of Nations had failed to protect them from Nazi aggression in 1939. These regimes, led by not wholly unpatriotic people, identified their personal and national destinies with Soviet power.

There is a fault-line between those who believe the last twelve years have been 'business as usual' in Australian foreign policy, and those who believe these have been years of growing foreign policy dysfunction and failure to defend Australian national interests.

Through the conceptions of international participation outlined above, the Australian government since 1996 can arguably be said to have ceased to believe in a rules-based international order and become increasingly cynical about the UN. It has instead moved towards coalitions with powerful world players with whom we are claimed to "share core values" — in particular, this has meant the United States. 

The Federal Government has also moved from a foreign policy based on sovereign state equality to a belief in a hierarchy of contending powers, in which Australia must prudently position itself as a loyal tributary to the US, as a hegemonic power vis-a-vis South Pacific island states, and (with the exception of the UK and major regional powers with whom it tries to maintain special bilateral relationships, e.g., Japan and China), as broadly indifferent to other states or regional groupings in the world. With ASEAN countries, Howard's relations are uncomfortable — neither hegemonic, nor tributary, nor genuinely equal.

Under 12 years of Howard government, this way of viewing the world has come to be seen as 'the new normal', now deeply ingrained in Australian political elites and the commentariat as simply 'common sense' — even among people who would claim to be Labor voters.

If Labor wins the forthcoming election, Australia must decide if its foreign policy will continue to operate within such a world view.

I believe the reality of our foreign policy experience over the past few years has more in common with the Warsaw Pact system than many Australians would like to admit. Over recent years, Australia has progressively surrendered important attributes of sovereignty, including the following.

1. Warmaking — Parliament has become a rubberstamp on the Executive's power to engage our soldiers in wars of choice.

2. Defence strategic doctrine and force structure planning, and procurement decision-making and practices — all now heavily influenced by US alliance considerations.

3. Trade and investment policies, in particular as affected by the WTO Rules and the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

4. Protection of national cultural values, quarantine protection regimes, public health and the provision of public medicines (and even blood).

5. Environment protection and climate change — where we have echoed US policies.

It's time for Australia to reclaim sovereigntyThe Australian government is reluctant to admit how much sovereignty Australia has surrendered in these areas over the past 12 years. To do so reflects poorly on their professional stewardship.

The polarisation of debate on such issues over the past 12 years has left the middle ground of public opinion confused as to what is really happening to Australian sovereignty. Questions include how much of our foreign policy is within our control, and what aspects of sovereignty really matter any more. If  Howard goes, there will need to be much work in redefining Australian strategic interests.

My hopes for Australian foreign policy in 2008 include the government making an explicit re-commitment to the UN, cooler engagement with Washington under ANZUS, a serious review of our strategic doctrines, defence force structure and procurement , a stronger role for the Parliament in decisions to go to war, an independent review of the US FTA, a review of our relations with Pacific and Southeast Asian neighbours and review of the manner in which aid is distributed as a foreign policy tool, and aid as an international good-citizen obligation.

I would also like to see a judicial inquiry into questions such as how human rights and civil liberties been eroded in recent years by the blurring of the separation of powers between administrative and judicial functions, and between the police and the military.

The collective expertise that exists in the Australian foreign policy and strategic community must not remain silent in the debates that our country needs to have as the Howard era draws to its close.



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Existing comments

Dear Mr Tony Kevin - Do toughen stance to preclude any voluntary involvement by Australia in any warlike acts without specific Parliamentary APPROVAL and ENDORSE Senator Andrew Bartlett's *Parliamentary Approval for Australian Involvement in Overseas Conflicts Bill 2003>05>07 UNEQUIVOCALLY/URGENTLY - I do not belong to the Democrats but shall vote for the Greens and Dems just ahead of ALP because on February 10 2005 the ALP voted! with the LibNP in Senate to reject this noble Bill. Please advocate this issue as defining a citizen's moral imperative to defeat the present Govt Coalition of EVIL: Ian Maguire

Ian Maguire | 30 September 2007  

I just saw this - and i agree with Ian Maguire that involvement in overseas military conflicts is not something that should be left to the whims of the Executive to decide and explain afterwards, as Howard did over Iraq in 2003 (our troops were already fighting in Iraq, and every senior Defence bureaucrat already knew this, when he got around to informing Parliament. I think that must never happen again. I hope that when Rudd is elected, he will consider making a commitment to the effect that he will always seek Parliamentary approval, by vote after full public debate, for any proposed overseas military involvement. Going to war, putting Australian lives at risk
(as well as the lives of others affected) is a serious business. Tony Kevin

tony kevin | 19 October 2007  

John Stone, in that August journal Quadrant has lauded John Winston Howard (Jay Dubya to his friends) as Australia's greatest ever PM.

Now that Jay Dubya has triumphally toured his spiritual nirvana, the right-wing think tanks of the US Eastern seaboard, we should get on with repairing the damage he has wrought, and establish rules and procedures to not allow the likes of Jay Dubya to pull such stunts ever again.

David Arthur | 12 April 2008  

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