CANBERRA - A victory for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in next week's election could see a shift in the emphasis of Australian foreign policy away from the United Nations and other international institutions, with implications for the Pacific.

While Labor and the Coalition share similar views on most of the nation's most important relationships, an Abbott Government would move back towards the bilateral focus of former Prime Minister John Howard.

Abbott has spoken of the importance of the "Anglosphere" of English-speaking nations, and of Australia's role in safeguarding western values in the region.

While neither has been clearly articulated, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told a national television audience yesterday that the term smacked of Howard's earlier assertion of the nation as the region's "deputy sheriff", a description that attracted both ridicule and concern.

But his debate with his Opposition counterpart, Julie Bishop, showed that with the exception of the UN and other multilateral bodies, Australia's course will remain relatively stable whoever wins power.

Both parties have been criticised, especially by aid organisations, for their lack of attention to international relations during a campaign that has been dominated by domestic issues and policies targeted at key interest groups and marginal seats.

Foreign policy has been submerged by the battle for votes as polls narrow, with the Coalition ahead in primary votes and in a number of the marginals that will decide the outcome.

Since the weekend Prime Minister Julia Gillard has regained traction after two disastrous weeks bogged down by Cabinet leaks and the ousting of predecessor Kevin Rudd, and has scored points in the debate over the future of broadband communications.

But a "town hall" meeting at Rooty Hill Returned and Service League club in western Sydney on Wednesday night showed she remained vulnerable over Rudd, broken promises and distaste for the New South Wales State Labor Government.

Rooty Hill is surrounded by volatile marginals that will be important to the outcome of the election, and the 200 members in the audience were undecided voters selected by the polling company Galaxy.

After questioning of Gillard and Abbott, the result was inconclusive: 35.5 per cent of the audience favoured Abbott, 30 per cent Gillard, and 34.5 per cent could not make up their minds.

And farce continued to dog the campaign yesterday as former Labor Leader Mark Latham, reporting for Channel Nine's 60 Minutes current affairs show, subjected Abbott to the same kind of ambush he set for Gillard last weekend. In a media crush that overpowered much of the coverage of Abbott's announcement on veterans' benefits, Latham asked the Opposition leader if he was "brave enough to shake my hand", amid calls from veterans for him to "piss off".

Earlier, Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb, furious at the leaking of Coalition campaign costings given to the Treasury for scrutiny, said no more would be submitted until a Federal Police investigation was launched.

The accuracy of opposing costings is a central issue in the campaign, relating to competing claims of economic competence.

Apart from rival policies on asylum seekers, the debate between Smith and Bishop was the first appearance of foreign relations in the campaign.

Both sides remain committed to the US alliance and the war in Afghanistan, attach priority to relations with Washington, Japan, China, India and Indonesia, and promise a strong focus on the Pacific. Fiji's military dictatorship remains a pariah, and both sides committed to continuing high levels of aid for the Pacific states, with Cabinet-level access for development agencies.

The Government has elevated the political role of aid agency AusAid, which now reports directly to Smith, and Bishop said a Coalition Government would include a new Minister for International Development, with a separate division within the Foreign Affairs and Trade Department.

Bishop indicated that a Coalition Government would consider directing development more at infrastructure to offset China's increasing presence and influence in the region.

She also said that while multilateral institutions were important, Australia had much to gain from bilateral relations - an emphasis of the former Howard Government, and reflected in Abbott's decision, if elected, to dump Canberra's bid for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.

Smith said the Government had "re-engaged" with the UN and other world bodies after it came to power in 2007 because every major challenge - from terrorism and transnational crime to climate change - needed to be dealt with internationally or at a regional level.

SOUNDBITES
Shadow finance minister Andrew Robb, refusing to submit new policies for Treasury scrutiny until police investigate the leak of earlier Coalition estimates: "We're not going to be used as political patsies by a Treasurer who is complicit in the leak of a very serious Treasury document and in the process someone who is aiding and abetting what looks like a criminal act."

Treasurer Wayne Swan, in reply: "That says to me they have got a cost blowout."

Julia Gillard, encapsulating her policies for 200 undecided voters at a "town hall" meeting in western Sydney: "Keeping the economy strong, I think that's at the centre of everything."

Tony Abbott, asked about banking competition at the same meeting: "The bloody banks are screwing me blind."

And, again, on the ousting of Kevin Rudd: "I would've argued that they should have got rid of him. Nevertheless, it should have been the people that made that decision, not the faction leaders."