Commentary | 04 December 2018

Once we were the laughing stock of the world, but now it's worse

At first the world laughed at Australia's political instability, but more serious consequences are emerging as international summit season comes to an end.

This article was originally published in Sydney Morning Herald on 3 December 2018. 

At first the world laughed at Australia's political instability, but more serious consequences are emerging as international summit season comes to an end.

This article was originally published in Sydney Morning Herald on 3 December 2018. 

In August, after yet another turn of Canberra’s revolving door, I argued in these pages that in order to have influence in the world, it is useful to present as a serious country with a functioning political system. I wrote that the world was laughing at us. The comedy show has since moved on to other venues. But now, the world might be reaching an even worse conclusion: that it can ignore us.

We have just come through summit season. The pace of regional diplomacy has picked up. Recently Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. The very next day Abe hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his home near Tokyo. The big three of Asia were meeting, sizing each other up, playing the game.

While others are making the running, however, Australia has lost a step. How could it be otherwise when our new prime minister will spend most of the time between now and next year’s election introducing himself to his counterparts?

Scott Morrison has been criticised for his "happy talk" while abroad, and for saying that Australia won’t have to choose between China and America. But you can sympathise with his predicament. He is in a diabolical political situation, lacking a parliamentary majority, with an election around the corner. How can he give due attention to foreign affairs?

After more dysfunction in Parliament House, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg withdrew from the weekend’s G20 meeting in Buenos Aires. Tensions in the partyroom trumped tensions in the world. Morrison made it to Buenos Aires and met with a good number of his counterparts. He displayed his usual affability throughout. There is a big difference, however, between first encounters and long-term relationships.

Australia’s diplomats managed to schedule a ‘‘pull-aside’’ meeting between Morrison and President Donald Trump. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s first question was: what happened to Malcolm? German Chancellor Angela Merkel spent the early part of her meeting with Morrison reading her briefing notes, which included a headshot of her interlocutor. You can hardly blame her: she is now on to her sixth Australian prime minister.

Our deteriorating international circumstances demand a creative Australian response. But it is hard for a government to be creative when it is beleaguered.

The shambolic turnover of prime ministers and ministers in the past decade has hampered their ability to form deep relationships and develop long-term initiatives. It has clouded perceptions of our country as a reliable interlocutor and a serious player.

Labor suffered this defect no less than the Coalition. Between 2010 and 2013, Australia had two prime ministers, three foreign ministers and two defence ministers.

Surely it is not coincidental that in this period Labor allowed the defence budget to run down so significantly. It is hard to concentrate on the long term when your job is threatened in the short term.

Prime ministers and foreign ministers bat at the top of the order. They need time to play their way into their international innings.

Consider Malcolm Turnbull. After a few years as prime minister, he was putting the pieces together on Southeast Asia. He developed a framework for approaching China, which he set out in an important speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Then, suddenly, he was gone.

Morrison came to the top job with an internationalist track record as Treasurer. He visited Jakarta within days of his appointment as Prime Minister. But he also cancelled long-planned visits to Malaysia and Vietnam. And now with the Israel embassy imbroglio the government has put a stick in the spokes of the Indonesia relationship.

The culprit, as always, was politics. The government made its announcement hurriedly, without the benefit of official advice. Why? To minimise the so-called "transaction costs" of dumping a prime minister – in this case damage to the party’s campaign in the seat of Wentworth.

The government is doing some good things. It has restored the defence budget. Morrison gave a balanced first speech on foreign policy. The recent announcements on the Pacific are welcome. But even the Pacific moves are primarily reactions to Chinese encroachments into our near neighbourhood. And while the game in the Pacific is important, it is far from the only game.

The diplomatic geometry in Asia is changing. Australians are used to the linear application of power by the United States, through its alliance system. But now we need to bone up on our trigonometry.

By turning inwards, Australia has taken itself out of the deal flow. We need to move urgently to thicken our connections with countries such as Indonesia, Japan, India and South Korea. We need to try to draw other like-minded powers such as France and the UK further into our part of the world.

We need to do more to buttress the rules-based order at a time when we have a President of the United States who doesn’t believe in rules.

And we need to come up with a serious China policy, one that involves ambition when the two countries’ interests converge and strength and consistency when our interests diverge.

Does anyone feel confident we are well positioned to weather a downturn in relations with China? The recent chill in the bilateral relationship discombulated large parts of business and government. What if China decided to impose significant costs on us? Would an Australian government have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to serious pressure?  Regrettably, there was no meeting between Morrison and Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires.

The world is moving fast. The world is moving on. It will not wait for Australian politics to get its mojo back.