For someone who follows foreign elections, like that happening now in the US and the one Canada held late last year, I am always amazed at the level of detail at which Australian politics is usually conducted. It may be hard to see from the inside, but Australian political debate is detailed and complex when it comes to domestic issues.

For instance, look at this exchange between Leigh Sales and Treasurer Scott Morrison last week regarding the Government's policy on capping tax-free superannuation pension transfers: 

LEIGH SALES: In a speech last week the former treasurer Peter Costello said, regarding your $1.6 million cap on tax-free superannuation pension transfers, that - and I'm quoting him here: "The Government said $1.6 million was four times the age pension. This is on the assumption of a 5.5 per cent return rate. That's what the Government thinks you're going to get. Does it really think that? It's issuing bonds at two per cent." So do you really think that?

SCOTT MORRISON: The calculations are based on a 25-year average earning of three per cent above inflation: so 25 years. We don't set these measures for the next two years: we set them for the next 25 years. Now, the average return - comparable return - over the last 11 years from these funds is 6.2 per cent. So that's what has been achieved and that includes negative return years, Leigh, during the GFC. So when...

What are they talking about? I actually have no idea.

Whatever it is, it's probably a good thing for policy regarding government bond rates and for the pensioners who primarily benefit from them. However, it also shows a couple of larger points. The debate in this election is about the margins, not the base or the whole. It also shows a level of scrutiny by the media on domestic issues which it rarely puts on foreign affairs.

A great example happened the day before the interview with Scott Morrison. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was interviewed on the same program, and after being questioned about marginal seats, Senate reform and polling, the Foreign Minister was asked a single foreign policy question at the end of the interview on the aid budget. Bishop responded that the budget commitment is leveling out and is in line with CPI.

Great, I guess. No further scrutiny needed.

In 7:30's defence, this is in line with much of what the rest of Australia's media is doing. I haven't seen much challenge from the media on either party's foreign policy stances, or the views of their leaders, or in fact scrutiny from the parties themselves. A good example was the leaders' debate on Sunday, where the only foreign policy topic that was brought up — refugees — actually saw both leaders trying their best to convince people that they back the existing policy even more than the other guy.

There are differences though. Dan Flitton has done a good job in tracing out some divisions and Georgina Downer also pointed some out yesterday. Some include:

  • Whether to reopen negotiations with East Timor over a border dispute (Labor says 'yes').
  • Labor's support for a global treaty abolishing nuclear weapons (part of the Party platform, but faces serious political hurdles with regards to extended nuclear deterrence).
  • Labor's call for the government to 'consider' conducting a freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea (Stephen Conroy called for this, but it was notably absent from Tanya Plibersek's address at the Lowy Institute today).
  • Labor's belief in a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict.

None of these are small or unimportant issues. The thing is, you wouldn't know they are points of difference. They aren't talked about or asked about. I understand that foreign policy doesn't win votes, so it usually doesn't decide elections. But that doesn't mean there should be no debate at all.

What about Australian troops and planes in Iraq and Syria? Has our mission there been effective? Do we need to commit more foreign aid there? In terms of defence, have we really nailed down the price on submarines? Is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, at an estimated $12 billion, a good buy? Where are the 12,000 Syrian humanitarian refugees the Abbott Government promised to take in September 2015? And one of Richard Di Natale's better points in his foreign policy speech at the Lowy Institute (others were less well considered): why was climate change not mentioned as a national security threat to Australia in the latest Defence White Paper? This is clearly something where Australia is falling behind compared to other Western countries, and surprisingly an issue Labor hasn't used to differentiate itself from Liberal defence policy.

Foreign policy can play a decisive role in elections, with the best example being Canada's federal election late last year. All these issues were subject to serious debate: each political party made electoral promises on Syrian humanitarian resettlement and the Liberals followed through with their commitment; Canada's foreign policy in Iraq and Syria was scrutinised; defence policy was willingly debated, and they even had a leaders-level televised foreign policy debate for the first time.

There seems to be appetite for this discussion in Australia and polling shows it. In 2006, the Lowy Poll found that 82% of respondents thought 'it will be best for the future of Australia's if we take an active part in world affairs'. While this is the most recent poll that has asked this question, I can't see this number going down in the intervening years, particularly with the global issues now facing the country.

Whatever the case, in the interconnected and uncertain world that Australia is facing, the choices will only grow harder. A higher level of debate, and informed disagreement, is needed.

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