Immigration Minister Peter Dutton

What does Australia want in Africa?

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What does Australia want in Africa?

Nikola Pijovic

25 Jun 2018

5min min read
  • International relations
  • Diplomacy

ustralia is one of the wealthiest nations in the world and a self-proclaimed middle power with global interests. It is the second or third wealthiest G20 nation in per capita terms – depending on which statistics you cite – and a vocal proponent of liberalism, free markets, development, human rights and a rules-based international order. It makes a big deal of "punching above its weight" in world affairs and being the record holder for recession-free economic growth, currently enjoying its 26th year of unimpeded economic growth

Yet Australia’s engagement with Africa is for the most part hardly enviable. In terms of diplomatic representation on the continent, it punches way below its weight. Until it opened a new embassy in Morocco last year, Australia along with Mexico had the least number of diplomatic posts in Africa of all G20 nations – eight. Sure, its diplomatic presence should not be compared to the likes of the United States (US), China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany or France in Africa, but it fares poorly against more comparable, Asian-based regional and middle powers like Indonesia (15 diplomatic posts), Korea (21) or Japan (35). 

This diplomatic deficit in Australia’s engagement with Africa is a direct result of the country’s inability to understand what it wants on the continent. Since the end of apartheid in South Africa, Australian politicians have been unable to offer a politically shared and accepted rationale for why engaging with African states makes sense and, as a result, Australian governments have on the whole been unable to assess and understand their strategic and long-term interests on the continent. Why? 

Firstly, because Australia carries unacknowledged and conveniently forgotten racist and colonial baggage from its historical engagement with the continent.

Colonial baggage

Australia’s engagement with Africa dates back to at least the mid-1880s. However, this engagement is conveniently forgotten because, from the 1880s until the early 1970s, it was marked by direct support for the colonisation of Africa and, from the end of World War II, strong sympathy for "outnumbered whites" in South Africa and Rhodesia, and their apartheid and white-minority system of governance. 

This flawed history is rarely, if ever, officially acknowledged, resulting in its casual whitewashing. Hence, in his 2014 message at the Boer War Day commemoration, Australia’s then prime minister Tony Abbott stated that Australians "have always served to uphold the rights of the weak against the strong", and that they "don’t fight to conquer" but to help, build, and serve. Of course, in the context of Australia’s participation in the Boer War this is a complete fallacy: the British, and some 16 000 Australians serving alongside them, were fighting to incorporate the Boer republics into the British Empire and maintain the subjugation of indigenous Africans.  

In fact, when Australian diplomats and politicians give speeches about Australia’s historical engagement with Africa they usually only focus on the last 20 years of that engagement (the early 1970s to the early 1990s), highlighting the country’s support for the anti-apartheid struggle. Certainly, Australia should be proud of its support for anti-racism in general and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. But in such speeches, there is hardly any mention of the open and prominent sympathy for apartheid and Rhodesia’s white-minority governance expressed by Australian prime ministers and senior politicians between 1949 and 1972. Or that the conservative government in the late 1970s couldn’t close the Rhodesian Information Centre in Sydney – the Rhodesian government’s informal embassy – because of a 'backbench revolt' and great sympathy towards white Rhodesians felt by almost half of conservative parliamentarians.

Australian politicians’ historical sympathy for colonialism and apartheid involved senior and prominent members on mainly the conservative side of politics. And those views have trickled down to some of the current crop of Australia’s conservative politicians, directly influencing their disinterest in engaging with African states.

Political partisanship

Secondly, Australia’s contemporary – that is, post-apartheid – relations with Africa are plagued by political partisanship, resulting in neglectful, fickle and largely episodic engagement. Simply put, since the mid-1990s, Australian conservative governments have seen little interest and value in engaging with African states, while Labor governments found some interest and value in that engagement.  

This political partisanship is a direct result of the conservative and Labor foreign policy outlooks which largely frame Australian politicians’ understanding of Australia’s place and role in the world. The conservatives adopt a ‘bilateralist regionalism’ approach which maximises Australia’s power through closeness with its major ally, the US, a bilateral management of foreign affairs and an overwhelming focus on Australia’s immediate region – the Asia-Pacific. Engagement with Africa, aside from commercial links with South Africa and whatever contacts are mandated through Australia’s membership of the Commonwealth, has little place here. This is only compounded by the colonialist and racist mindsets present among some conservative Australian politicians, who see little value in engaging poor, corrupt and poorly government African states, but still exhibit a great deal of sympathy for the plight of "persecuted" white South African farmers.   

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton in March 2018 said Australia will consider fast-tracking visas for white South African farmers, as they "deserve special attention" and "need help from a civilised country such as ours". (Stefan Postles/Getty)

On the other hand, Labor governments adopt a ‘middle power’ approach which maximises Australia’s power through both the US alliance and ‘good international citizenship’ – that is, the maintenance of a stable and predictable rules-based international order. Since this international order is mostly maintained through multilateral frameworks made up mostly of states outside of Australia’s immediate region, Labor governments are more open-minded to the need for engaging African states. 

In the past two decades this political partisanship has seen Australia try to forget Africa during the John Howard conservative government between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, then enact a new engagement with the continent during Labor’s reign from 2007 to 2013, and since then disengage from Africa under the Tony Abbott and current Malcolm Turnbull conservative Australian governments. Such fickleness and volatility are ill-suited for supporting commercial, diplomatic and strategic Australian interests on the continent. 

Australian interests

On the commercial front there are at least 170 Australian resources companies investing and working across the majority of African states. As many of them are small and medium-sized – rather than large multinationals – they often require Australian diplomatic and consular support to firstly gain a foothold in these countries’ markets, and then enhance their ability to do business there. This needs to be done with due diligence, and knowledge about those companies’ operations so as to avoid compromising Australia’s reputation

On the diplomatic front Australia needs to maintain close and vibrant ties with African states in order to be able to achieve its multilateral objectives, such as membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). However, these ties need to be maintained regularly rather than cyclically every 10 or 15 years when the country bids for UNSC membership. Finally, Africa falls into Australia’s Indo-Pacific understanding of its strategic and security environment, and China’s turn west across the Indian Ocean into Africa and the Middle East is something that Australia needs to understand and, where possible, take advantage of to advance its own economic prosperity and physical security.

While immigration, globalisation, technology, trade, terrorism and climate change continue to bring Africa and Australia closer together, Australia’s inability to understand what it wants in Africa will continue to hold back its engagement with the continent. The Australian political class must pay more heed to Africa for the sake of the country’s national interests. 

(Main image: Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.  Stefan Postles/Getty)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.