My Two Cents: meeting the Hon. Stephen Smith

On Tuesday 30th of September, former Foreign, Trade and Defence Minister Stephen Smith spoke at the monthly branch meeting of the Australian Institute of International Affairs for WA. His speaking topic was “Continuity in Australian Foreign Policy”.

But what is “continuity in Australian Foreign Policy”? What on God’s green earth does that mean?!


Continuity means to continue, without ceasing or stopping. You’re all intelligent readers of mine.

Just because Governments change every 4 years, not all areas of policy will change drastically.
Policy change never happens fast on a bureaucratic level.

Something like economic or fiscal policy (money spending) will always change with each Government, whereas areas like foreign policy, (international and domestic) trade, and defence – for example – will rarely vary with the change of national leadership.

“Why is there a difference?”
It boils down to party politics. All parties will want good international trading/diplomatic relationships (but with who is where it becomes partisan), all parties will want Australia to have Defence forces (but how big and when/where they are used is where it becomes partisan).

And now, to Stephen..
Minister Smith was in charge of both Foreign Affairs and Trade, and also Defence when the ALP were in power between 2007 and 2013.

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Source: Australian Institute of International Affairs for WA Facebook

I had high expectations, I won’t lie. I’d always been impressed by Smith, and I had the opportunity to meet him face to face.
He has retired from public office, and I wondered what lay beneath the ‘suited veneer’ when not in election mode.

Stephen Smith is very impressive.
He speaks with a sincere, steady tone which is very easy to follow. I didn’t find myself playing with my phone, staring at the wall, or chatting to anyone around me, as he was speaking.

Continuity in Australian foreign policy essentially comes from our enduring bureaucracy – the fact that the public service and Government Agencies don’t change staff with every election. Some initiatives like establishing diplomatic or trade ties, Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), Australia’s petitioning for a UN Security Council seat, becoming a signatory of and formally ratifying interntaional treaties – are just a few of the ways foreign, trade and defence policies are enacted. Unless you’re Sir Robert Menzies (Longest Serving Prime Minister) or John Winston Howard (Second Longest) few Prime Ministers will see any initiatives through from start to enactment.

For example, the Free Trade Agreement which Prime Minister Abbott secured with Japan this year (2014) – the groundwork for this began under Prime Minister Howard, was continued under Rudd and Gillard, and came to fruition during Abbott’s tenure.

With most foreign policy achievements similar to this, it is more a case of who is, metaphorically, ‘on the stage’ when the ‘show’ finishes – and they get the standing applause for the entire show.

If that makes sense?

As for the content of his speech, Minister Smith touched on the topics of the Australia’s relationships with China and the US, the rise of the Indian Ocean Nations, sale of Uranium to India, Iraq War, IS/ISIS/ISIL, Australia’s Security Council Seat, the MH17 tragedy, and he passed some (unembellished) words of praise for Minister Bishop. In my opinion, Minister Bishop has done a very dignified job as Foreign Minister so far, but to hear this from her predecessor, no less her political opposite(!) warmed my little politcal heart.

What DIDN’T he talk about?
He didn’t talk about Rudd and Gillard. Except only a couple of times to say words to the effect of: “under Prime Minister Rudd ‘x’ initiative happened”. Passing references. No-one asked about leadership spills. So he didn’t mention them. I’m kind of glad, really. Stephen probably keeps the scope of his speeches narrow or to very specific topics in order avoid a subject of much conjecture.

When it came to question time, I got to ask him a question! (Very exciting) After a couple of policy questions, I asked mine which ran along the lines of — “Thank you Stephen, you’ve fielded some great questions before mine – so for a change of pace, I would like to ask you a more light-hearted question. During your various Ministerial tenures, was there ever a ‘WOW’ moment for you; did you experience anything truly unique that could only happen to the very few people who become Ministers, that is a fond memory of yours?”

If you see him, you should ask him about being regaled on the fine art of American football by former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or when he got to buy her a long black when she visited Perth. There is more interesting detail to the story, but you shall have to see him speak for yourself and ask him – which I seriously recommend you do.

Minister Smith delivered the Institute of Public Administration Australia (WA)’s annual Reid Oration about a week later on “Public policy challenges of change in our region” – Full text available to download here: http://www.ias.uwa.edu.au/lectures/2014-reid-oration

With all that in mind, makes me pretty happy to be a part of the public service. An entity continually in the spotlight, but that which endures, despite any political adversity or change.

As always, do share your thoughts with me via twitter (@thetangibleblog), Instagram (@thetangibleblog) and Facebook (The Tangible Blog) or below 🙂
your well-shod author,

A x

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