top of page

Poverty & national security

Andrew Hewitt

The forthcoming election campaign will be an unusual one. It'll be one of the few times in Australia's history that foreign policy debates will be central to a campaign. This will present a challenge for the Labor Party and indeed for all who are concerned with Australia's place in the world and our country's role in helping to create and sustain a fairer and more peaceful world.

Current foreign policy debate in Australia is preoccupied with a narrow and one dimensional approach to national security and how we define our national interest. It's a debate which is based a narrow vision of the role that Australia can play, the sorts of relationships we could build and the sorts of opportunities we could create in our region and beyond. Let there be no doubt that Australian governments have a right and indeed a responsibility to take decisions in Australia's national interest.

The Australian government elected in 2004 will however sell Australia short if it continues to create a false dichotomy between Australia's national interest and the quest for global social justice. There can be no security for Australians without real action to eliminate poverty and promote social justice within our region and beyond. Achieving human security - the protection of lives and achievement of sustainable livelihoods for people - is the key to global security and therefore now more than ever central to Australia's national interest.

The world is facing major challenges. Coming to grips with a changed security environment is but one - and not necessarily the most important - of these challenges.The continuing scandal of chronic mass poverty and the obscene and growing disparities of wealth and income between rich and poor receives less public attention.The parlous state of global governance undermines attempts to respond to the challenges facing us all. And of course there is the reality of a unipolar world with one superpower seemingly uncommitted to a serious engagement with multilateral processes.

A regenerated foreign policy

Australia's foreign policy needs regenerating. It needs to more adequately respond to these real challenges facing our country, our region and our world.It needs to fully reflect our potential to contribute to a better world. We're a middle level power with an advanced economy, indeed as Mr. Downer recent boasted, the world's 12th biggest economy, and a stable parliamentary democracy. We're a strong multi-cultural society, with until recently a proud record of active involvement in the United Nations and other elements of global governance. We're part of the Asia Pacific region, a region where most of the world's population lives and indeed where most of the world's poor are. So how can Australia best capitalise upon this potential and help create a fairer wold? Importantly Australia needs a whole of government approach to its relations with the rest of the world. There's not much point having a progressive foreign policy if a government's approach to trade or military assistance undermines global governance or the promotion of human rights.

Oxfam Community Aid Abroad argues that there should be four hallmarks of Australia's foreign policy in these early years of the 21st century.

First Australia's policy makers should have a broad understanding of human security.

Responding to the security challenges means more than donning khaki and the latest whizz bang military hardware. Of course, there may be a police and military dimension to enhancing security but to be frank global security and Australia's role in enhancing it is too important to be just left to the defence department, the Australian federal police and their political representatives. I don't agree with the argument that 'poverty causes terrorism'. But I do believe that gross disparities of wealth and income, closed and unresponsive political systems and an unwillingness of powerful countries to confront seemingly intractable political problems such as the Israel/Palestine question, create an environment where terrorism can flourish.

Adopting a broader understanding of human security by an Australian government would have a number of practical implications, including:

· Rebuilding the Australian aid program. Australia's aid spending is at record low levels and has been for a number of years. It needs to be boosted and seen as central to Australia's approach to the world.

· Boosting aid spending is a start but the aid program needs to be redesigned to place the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals at its heart. The aid program should work hand in hand with other arms of government to ensure that Australia helps make these goals a reality. They are modest ambitions for the year 2015 - universal primary education, improvement in maternal health, promotion of gender equality and the like. Achieving these goals would have an immense impact on global human security.

· Ensuring that our approach to global trade works for human security. Trade can be a powerful force for poverty reduction. The rigged rules and double standards of the rich countries prevent it fulfilling this potential. It means, for instance, challenging the US and European Union's obscene subsidies which result in environmentally damaging over-production and which flood international markets. A focus on the reforming agricultural trade is central and recognising the special needs of 900 million poor farmers critical.

Placing human rights at the centre of Australia's approach to the world should be the second hallmark.

Human rights concerns are an international language. A country like Australia can play a positive role in ensuring that that whole international community recognises their centrality.It means adopting a broad conception of human rights, including understanding the inter-relationship between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights such as the right to education, healthcare and clean water.

Getting our own house into order

First, this means that we have to get our own policies and practices in order. Changing the treatment of asylum seekers, especially ending the Pacific Solution, would be a necessary first step. Seriously improving the rights of indigenous Australians and accepting their right to self-determination as a starting point is important.And it means using international and bilateral forums to argue for better adherence to human rights norms.

The third hallmark is a serious commitment to and engagement with multilateral processes and institutions.

It's in Australia's national interest to have strong, effective, inclusive multilateralism. Our influence is magnified and our capacity to help create and sustain a fairer and more peaceful world enhanced if such processes and institutions are in place. And given the events of the last twelve months can anyone seriously argue with the proposition that the world would be a better place if we had a better system of global governance with the full and unqualified commitment of all countries. We have more to gain than lose with such an approach. It would lead to Australia valuing and respecting United Nations processes. It would mean a re-engagement with the International Labour Organisation. It would lead to us signing and ratifying the Kyoto climate change protocol. It means prioritising international mechanisms such as the Global Fund to combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB. It would mean respecting the international human rights monitoring processes. It would mean prioritising multilateral trade negotiations over bilateral deals.

But it would also mean recognising that global governance needs reinvigorating. Clearly not all is right with the United Nations. It could play a more effective role in preventing and resolving conflict. It could help establish new norms which place human security at their centre. And Australia could also ensure that the internal governance arrangements at the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the Bretton Woods Institutions are renewed and changed to be more inclusive, representative and effective.But for Australia to help achieve such changes, it needs to be an active and committed member of these bodies. We can't just shout from the sidelines; we can't pick and choose which procedures we'll respect and which we'll ignore or undermine.

The fourth hallmark of a new Australian approach to the world is a serious engagement with the Asia Pacific region.

Geography is an important determinant of any country's foreign policy. Australia has both the benefit and the challenges of being part of this region. Our engagement in the region should be deep and long-term. It should be based on an understanding of the respective strengths of each of the players and of cultural norms. It should be sensitive to perceptions of Australia and of the legacy of previous - and present policies and practices. From my travels in the region I can assure you that the White Australia policy is not forgotten, the Hanson phenomena is contemporary history and the 'deputy sheriff' tag is known and seen as valid. And the Pacific Solution is deeply resented in that part of the world. Our engagement in the region should be to enhance human security, respect for human rights and multilateral processes and institutions. In practice this means such things as:

· Seeing the sustainable development of East Timor as being important in itself and in Australia's interest. This means ensuring they get a fair deal over maritime boundaries and oil and gas reserves. It means opting back into acceptance of the Law of Sea processes.

· Ensuring that our engagement with the Pacific is more than the sending in of police and military forces - important as they have been in the Solomons. In the Solomons, for instance, it means having a long-term commitment with a prime focus on rural development, especially sustainable livelihoods, resolving land ownership claims, combatting gender based violence and promoting restorative justice practices.

We need a vision of Australia's place in the world

This election campaign is a time for competing visions to be put on the table and debated. The forces of globalisation have ensured that foreign policy has been brought in from the cold. It is central to any national debate and policy making. Having an ethical foreign policy should not be condemned as 'idealistic'. It's the height of realism to look beyond the short-term and to see the congruence between a principled foreign policy and Australia's national interest.

Today I've put forward Oxfam Community Aid Abroad's views on the framework and priorities for a regenerated Australian approach to the world. As a non-party political organisation we'll work with any and all who wish to see Australia live up to its potential and held create and sustain a fairer, more secure and peaceful world.


Andrew Hewitt is the executive director of Oxfam, Australia's leading agency working with communities around the world for solutions to poverty and social injustice. This is the text of an address to the Evatt Foundation's sunset seminar, convened as part of the Fringe Conference associated with the ALP National Conference on Thursday 29 January 2004 at Sydney's Quality Hotel.


bottom of page