Australia needs a foreign policy

Australia needs a foreign policy
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott

When the United Nations special rapporteur on torture said this month that detention of refugee children, violence in Pacific island detention camps and forced return of asylum seekers was in breach of Australia's treaty obligations, Prime Minister Tony Abbott went immediately onto the attack.

"Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations, particularly given that we have stopped the boats, and by stopping the boats, we have ended the deaths at sea," the prime minister said.

The response illustrated three things.

One was Abbott's tendency to attack the messenger rather than respond coolly to the message. The second was the ingrained suspicion of the UN and of internationalism on the conservative side of Australian politics. The third was the haziness of the line between domestic politics and foreign policy in contemporary Australia.

The country has the shortest electoral cycle of any established democracy -- just a three-year term for the lower house of the federal parliament. But even allowing for this, Abbott has scarcely moved beyond the attack-dog mode and simple policy mantras that swept his Liberal Party and its coalition partner the National Party to victory over Labor in September 2013.

Halfway through the government's parliamentary term, Australia's international standing and some of its key foreign relationships are showing damage.

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