Commentary |
1 February 2021

Australia’s politicians must get to know the neighbours

When other democracies are watching see how we manage China, it is odd that Australia is looking so far away for inspiration. Originally published in The Australian Financial Review.

Richard McGregor
Richard McGregor

The late Tim Fischer, the one-time National Party leader known for his cockie image and obsession with railways, isn’t at first blush an obvious avatar for modern Australian foreign policy.

But one of Fischer’s lesser-known obsessions provides a good antidote for the up-and-coming leaders who think they have the answer to the upheaval in Australian’s geostrategic neighbourhood.

Beijing’s illiberal turn under Xi Jinping, and the collapse of bilateral ties along with it, has prompted suggestions that Australia’s diplomatic priorities have been overly focused on China, and Asia.

The argument, that Australia should put less emphasis on the region and more on reinforcing ties with the Anglosphere and its core institution, the Five Eyes intelligence network, is a familiar one that comes around every few years.

Indeed, it is a reliable part of the cycle of the “is Australia part of Asia” debate, which at different moments invariably returns to the idea that Canberra should look to its settlement roots for a diplomatic landing point.

With common history, language and values, so the argument goes, the Anglosphere is Australia’s natural home, and one that should be solidified every chance we can get.

In truth, the Anglosphere, and the Five Eyes, comprising the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is doing just fine. The Five Eyes in particular is in rude health, in many respects because of their joint focus on China.

Not only have the Five Eyes closely co-ordinated their positions on Xinjiang and Hong Kong (with New Zealand occasionally going AWOL), its ministers have also combined on policies to combat the impact of COVID-19.

The five countries, all liberal democracies, form the core of an initiative planned by Joe Biden’s administration to bring leaders of democratic countries together for a summit meeting in the US in his first year in office.

Put another way, the Anglosphere works best as a foundation to be built on, not a house to be sheltered in, which is where Tim Fischer comes in.

As a young man, Fischer became fascinated by Thailand, a country he first visited while on leave from military duty in the Vietnam War. He returned regularly over many years, building close personal ties with young politicians who would grow up to become leaders in their own right.

Any young or aspiring MPs concerned about China’s growing influence in south-east Asia and the Pacific could do well to emulate him.

Instead of nestling in the comforts of the Anglosphere, choose a country – Indonesia, Malaysia, India, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and so forth – travel there every year or so, identify up-and-coming leaders of various stripes and build personal relationships with them.

Without mentioning Fischer, Scott Morrison expressed similar sentiments when addressing Australian ambassadors when they returned to Canberra for a heads-of-mission meeting in 2019.

Morrison has learned from his own experience of hosting Pacific leaders, who invariably share his Christian faith and love of rugby league and are thrilled to go with him to his church and to watch the Cronulla Sharks.

Recognise that less China, if that is what Australia is facing, means more Asia, not the other way around.

His message to the diplomats was simple: get to know their counterparts in the Pacific, where their kids went to school, their church, their football team and so forth.

It was good advice, and a prescription that could equally be applied to south-east Asia and to the rising stars on the Coalition and Labor backbenches.

MPs might reasonably complain they are captive of whichever nation or company offers them paid trips overseas, and, in this respect, the breakdown of the destinations they travel to is instructive.

From 2010 to 2018, MPs on sponsored trips visited Israel 102 times, China 63 times and the US 49 times, according to a survey of parliamentary declarations by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

In the short-term, the China trips (many paid for by Huawei) will all but disappear, likely leaving Israel and the US by far the biggest destinations.

Nonetheless, the figures are astoundingly imbalanced. As important as Israel may be, it does not rank alongside most nations in Asia as a core interest of Australia, nor does it lack for friends in politics on both sides of the aisle.

COVID-19, as in so many policy areas, offers the chance for a reset.

First, recognise that less China, if that is what Australia is facing, means more Asia, not the other way around. It also means a greater focus on the Pacific, though Australia is well down that road already.

That, in turn, means consistent, steady engagement from the political system to build ties beyond the work of on-the-ground diplomats.

Just as the world is looking to China and, by extension, Asia, and watching how democracies like Australia are managing the region, it is a somewhat strange notion that we should be looking elsewhere for our future.

It also means finding alternative sources of funding for travel. Political parties don’t have the money to sends their MPs overseas, and nor do individual MPs. Israel tops the list because its supporters in Australia are willing to pay for them to go.

There are obvious exceptions to any complaint that MPs have failed to keep abreast with the region. A number have made consistent effort to engage, sometimes at their own expense.

Nonetheless, it is embarrassing that the MP who has travelled most to south-east Asia in recent years is the Coalition’s George Christensen, otherwise known as the Member for Manila. We can do better than that.