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Abbott sets foreign policy tone

2013 Nov 18

Tony Abbott's trip to Sri Lanka has set the tone and direction for his government's foreign policy agenda.

Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapaksa summed it up as succinctly as any foreign policy expert could.

'It's very practical,' the president told reporters when asked about Abbott's approach at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo.

'I thank the Australian prime minister for taking that stand.'

The president was referring to Abbott's decision to approach CHOGM not as a forum to criticise the Sri Lankan regime's human rights record, but to engage with the Rajapaksa government in a way which benefits both countries economically and politically.

There was enough criticism of Sri Lanka already.

The prime ministers of Canada, India and Mauritius boycotted the summit of 53 Commonwealth leaders.

They argued the host nation had failed to live up to the values and human rights to which all Commonwealth nations have subscribed and it is hypocritical for the Commonwealth chairmanship to be held by such a regime.

Journalists are routinely harassed, judges are stripped of their roles, political critics disappear in white vans and ethnic minorities are marginalised.

British PM David Cameron, who visited Tamil leaders in the island's north, said during the summit an independent inquiry is needed into final months of the three decade long civil war in which an estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed.

He threatened to get a UN-sanctioned inquiry if Sri Lanka itself did not do a thorough job.

But all the while, Abbott remained focused on his own agenda: investment and stopping the boats.

Australian mining companies, manufacturers and tourism operators such as James Packer are eagerly seeking a foothold in the island's economic development.

And having witnessed more than 6400 people fleeing the country by boat towards Australia in 2012, which has slowed by a factor of four this year, the prime minister is keen to harness Sri Lankan authorities' help to end the people-smuggling trade.

To help things along Australia has given Sri Lanka two retired patrol boats and is working on a new agreement between the two navies.

This occurred despite Sri Lankan navy officers facing charges of facilitating people smuggling operations.

The Abbott diplomatic strategy sees beyond this to look at the bright side - Sri Lanka is identifying corruption and dealing with it without outside help, so Australians can be reassured all will be well in time.

The pragmatism of such an approach will work well for Abbott domestically and as he grows into the role of leader of a significant middle power nation involved in the G20 and UN Security Council.

From a political angle, it is about Australia building economic and security ties with as much of the world as possible and creating greater job opportunities.

The downside to the strategy has been identified by people such as human rights advocate Emily Howie, who has interviewed many Sri Lankans looking to flee the country for a better life.

'Sri Lanka is still a refugee-producing country,' she told AAP.

'Sri Lankans continue to flee because they fear torture, persecution and death at the hands of the state.' She says it is only by sending a strong message to the Sri Lankan government at CHOGM in support of protecting human rights in that country that Australia could have taken a principled stand and addressed the root causes of why people leave.

That Abbott did not do this is to 'Australia's great shame', she says.

But Abbott is convinced that engagement is infinitely better than isolation.

'We are here to praise as much as to judge,' he said of his attendance at CHOGM.

For the new prime minister, it marks the start of a new era of foreign policy.

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