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Regional focus in foreign policy
Interview with Australia's Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

First, 2012 promises to be yet another massive year in global politics. Europe in deep financial trouble, a US election campaign in full swing, rumbling and ructions throughout the Middle East, foreign forces closer to withdrawal from Afghanistan after a decade of decidedly mixed results in the struggle against the Taliban. Papua New Guinea in crisis and that's just for starters.

In Australia it is set to be a make or break year for the minority Labor Government of Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. The Opposition's headed the Government in the polls for more than a year. Now Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, is promising that if he wins the next election, he'd have a foreign policy focusing on Jakarta rather than Geneva, as he puts it.

Julie Bishop is Australia's Shadow Foreign Minister.She is speaking to Jim Middleton.
Transcript
JIM MIDDLETON: Julie Bishop, thanks for joining us.

JULIE BISHOP, SHADOW FOREIGN MINISTER: My pleasure.

JIM MIDDLETON: A focus on Jakarta rather than Geneva. Could you expand on exactly what that means?

JULIE BISHOP: A Coalition Government would make its priority a focus on our region. It's where we live, it's where we can make the most difference, it is where much of our foreign aid money is spent. And we would particularly ensure that our relations with our neighbours were repaired.

A great deal of damage has been done to our bilateral relations with our neighbours and one of my first tasks as the foreign minister would be to be to repair those relationships.

JIM MIDDLETON: On those statement of Mr Abbott's about Jakarta rather than Geneva, how does that sit with his insistence that if the Coalition does win the next election, he would turn back every boatload of asylum seekers? That's a policy which would have significant implications for Jakarta, would it not?

JULIE BISHOP: It has been our policy for 10 years to turn back boats in circumstances where it is safe to do so. And that means a great deal of close cooperation with Indonesia. That has been lacking with this Government.

The Government's treatment of Indonesia in some instances has been nothing short after appalling. For example, its announcement of the ban on the live cattle trade to Indonesia, without giving Indonesia any notice, caused enormous disruption and turmoil and concern in Indonesia.

JIM MIDDLETON: Talking about unilateral announcements, you've said that you'd try to ensure there would be no surprises in relations between Australia and Indonesia. On this latest exposition of Coalition policy from Mr Abbott that you would no longer passively accept the arrival of asylum seeker boats from Indonesia, how much warning did you give Jakarta of that development?

JULIE BISHOP: Jim, that has been our policy for 10 years. We did it in Government and ever since we've been in opposition we have been consistent in our policy approach to asylum seekers. And that is, we would retain offshore processing on Nauru, that we would turn back boats where it was safe to do so, and that we would introduce temporary protection visas.

That's been our policy for the 2007 election, the 2010 election, and again for the next election. So there was no surprise in Indonesia.

JIM MIDDLETON: You saw the Indonesian ambassador in Canberra during the week. Did he reiterate any Indonesia's concerns about Mr Abbott's insistence that the Coalition would turn back all boats emanating from Indonesia?

JULIE BISHOP: I meet with a number of ambassadors on a very regular basis. In fact, I try to meet with all of the ambassadors that are resident here in Canberra. And of course I maintain close contacts with the Indonesian ambassador.

During the course of our discussion, we spoke about a whole range of issues. It was very productive and I intend to continue this dialogue with ambassadors, particularly from countries in our region.

JIM MIDDLETON: Did either he or you raise the question of Mr Abbott's latest exposition of Coalition policy on asylum seeker boats?

JULIE BISHOP: We spoke about border protection. We spoke about the close cooperation that will be needed. We talked about the challenges that Indonesia faces with the influx of people who come in to Indonesia, then destroy their travel documents so that they can make the journey to Australia.

We spoke about a whole range of issues. And as I said, it was a very fruit full and productive discussion and it will be ongoing. We do not intend to make the mistakes of the Labor Government by announcing policies that affect other countries, yet, we don't give them notice of it. The Government has made that terrible mistake in relation to East Timor, announcing its East Timor Solution without contacting the appropriate people in the East Timorese government. They've announced the Malaysia Solution without informing any of the country's who would be affected, particularly Indonesia. And of course, as I said, the terrible example of the live cattle ban without informing Indonesia.

JIM MIDDLETON: But no mention in your latest meeting with the Indonesian ambassador about the question of turning back all boats?

JULIE BISHOP: Jim, we discussed all our policies in relation to asylum seekers, but I'm not going to go into the detail of confidential discussions that I have with ambassadors and high commissioners from our region.

JIM MIDDLETON: Turning to relations with another of Australia's close neighbours, Papua New Guinea, which is in continuing crisis, would a Coalition Government have done anything different in trying to forestall this test of strength between Peter O'Neill and Sir Michael Somare?

JULIE BISHOP: Jim, what we would do differently is maintain a focus on Papua New Guinea. It has been over time the largest recipient of Australian aid. It is our closest neighbour. We have a shared history and I believe that Papua New Guinea should be one of our highest foreign policy priorities.

Kevin Rudd started off with great expectations. He made a visit to Papua New Guinea early in his prime ministership, but since that time his focus has gone from PNG, from the region, and he's now utterly obsessed and focused with his bid for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. This has been noticed in the region and Papua New Guinea is an example.

Given the events of recent weeks, given the political instability and even the natural disaster, the landslide that occurred in the Southern highlands that had quite disastrous consequences, these events all show that it is absolutely essential that the Australian Government remained focused on events in PNG. And we should be offering to assist wherever we can, working very closely with PNG, on a whole range of areas, whether it is in security, whether it is in developing an economic partnership so that we can move away from the aid donor, aid recipient relationship. We must give PNG our closest attention.

JIM MIDDLETON: One final subject, you've talked extensively and glowingly about the impact of the Colombo Plan in giving a generation of Asian leaders an enhanced view of Australia. Is it time to set up a 21st Century version of the Colombo Plan for the next generation of Asian leaders?

JULIE BISHOP: Jim, this is a passion of mine, having spent some time studying overseas, I know the personal benefits that come from spending time in another country. And I think the Colombo Plan is an exemplary example of public diplomacy where a whole generation or more of young people, the best and brightest from our region, were given an opportunity to undertake study in Australia. And many of those student are now leaders in government and in the public and private sector, in countries in our region. And this exchange of ideas and understanding is invaluable.

From a public point of view, I would like to see it as a two way exchange. Young Australians having the opportunity to undertake studies in our region. And I have said in speeches and elsewhere that I would like to review the Colombo Plan, but as a two way exchange. I can't think of a better form of public diplomacy than having a body of young people in our country and young people in countries in our region who have spent time studying, working, living in another country and it is most certainly something I intend to pursue.

JIM MIDDLETON: Julie Bishop, thanks very much for your time.

JULIE BISHOP: It's been my absolute pleasure, Jim, thank you.
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