Lowy Institute Conversations: Paul Kelly on Scott Morrison's foreign policy 'mission'
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Lowy Institute Conversations: Paul Kelly on Scott Morrison's foreign policy 'mission'

In this episode, Director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program Sam Roggeveen speaks to journalist and political commentator Paul Kelly about the factors and influences that have shaped Scott Morrison’s approach to foreign policy.

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When he emerged as Australia’s 30th Prime Minister in 2018, Scott Morrison was not known for his diplomatic credentials and had never made foreign policy a big feature of his political career. Yet he has presided over one of the most consequential periods in Australia’s international relations: from a recalibration of ties with China, Australia’s primary trade partner, to the announcement of the AUKUS agreement.

In this episode, Director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program Sam Roggeveen speaks to journalist and political commentator Paul Kelly about the factors and influences that have shaped Scott Morrison’s approach to foreign policy, which are detailed in Kelly’s new Lowy Institute Paper, Morrison’s Mission: How a beginner reshaped Australian foreign policy.

Paul Kelly is Editor-at-Large at The Australian. He writes on politics, public policy and international relations and is a former Editor-in-Chief at the paper. He has written or co-authored 12 books on Australian politics and history including The End of Certainty (1992) on the politics and economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating era, The March of Patriots (2009), offering a re-interpretation of the Keating and Howard prime ministerships, and Triumph and Demise (2014), an account of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era. Morrison’s Mission follows his 2006 book for the Lowy Institute on John Howard’s foreign policy, Howard’s Decade.

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Sam Roggeveen: It's August 2018 and Scott Morrison is a senior cabinet minister in the Turnbull government, which has made decisions that have irked our most important trading partner, China. Turnbull vetoed Chinese investment in electricity infrastructure provider AusGrid and passed foreign interference laws aimed at China. Then, on 23 August, the government announces it will ban Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from competing for Australia's 5G rollout contract. One day later, Morrison suddenly and unexpectedly becomes prime minister. He's not known for his diplomatic credentials, and he has never made foreign policy a big feature of his political career. So how does Morrison take charge of the nation's foreign policy while stabilizing the government and getting ready to fight an election which he is widely expected to lose? And after winning that election unexpectedly, how does he end up at the centre of one of the most consequential Australian foreign policy decisions in a generation the decision to form AUKUS and to buy nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian Navy? More broadly, what makes Scott Morrison tick as a foreign policy leader? What are his beliefs and his instincts? That's what we're talking about in this episode of Lowy Institute Conversations with me Sam Roggeveen, Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute. My guest today is one of Australia's most recognized political journalists and commentators Paul Kelly. Thanks for joining me, Paul.

Paul Kelly: Very good to be with you, Sam.

Sam Roggeveen: Paul's the author of the latest Lowy Institute Paper, Morrison's Mission: How a beginner reshaped Australian foreign policy, and it's published by Penguin. You can order it wherever you buy books online, and you'll find it in bookstores around Australia. Paul, let's start at the beginning of Morrison's prime ministership, in August 2018. You describe him as a foreign policy beginner, and he has a notable early stumble over Jerusalem. So how do you describe Morrison's initiation into foreign policy as PM? And can you also say something about the lessons he brought with him into the job having served as a cabinet minister under both Abbott and Turnbull?

Paul Kelly: Sam, the book tells the truly extraordinary story of Scott Morrison's transition in foreign policy terms. When he became prime minister he was, as I've said, an amateur or a beginner in foreign policy. He wasn't steeped in diplomatic practice at all. And he did make a number of blunders at the start. There's no question about that. But the interesting thing about Morrison is that he was a fast learner. And he had to learn quickly. He recognized very quickly that he faced a world being transformed, and with a particular risk and danger to Australia in terms of China's assertiveness and in terms of China's policy of economic coercion against Australia. I point out that while Morrison was an amateur in foreign policy terms, he was experienced, in one sense in particular. And that is that he'd sat in the National Security Committee of cabinet for many years. This gave him unparalleled access to all the critical national security decisions that had been taken under Malcolm Turnbull. And of course, the point to make about that is, national security was fundamental. So when he became prime minister, he was a diplomatic amateur, but in many ways seasoned in national security.

Sam Roggeveen: So Paul, with that in mind, what would you say are the differences between Morrison and his two predecessors, Turnbull and Abbott, with whom he served as senior ministers under both their Prime ministerships - what's distinctive about Morrison's approach?

Paul Kelly: I think the first point to make, Sam, is that there was a high degree of continuity between Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. Essentially because Australian policy began to change fundamentally towards China under Turnbull. These were decisions taken on the National Security Committee of cabinet, decisions endorsed by Scott Morrison. What happened when Scott Morrison became prime minister was that the competition with China, the sense of economic coercion from China towards Australia only intensified. And I think it's fair to say that Scott Morrison saw himself not just as continuing the Turnbull policy towards China, but intensifying it. So Morrison sought to be an even stronger and better and more resilient national security guardian vis-a-vis China than was Turnbull. And this, of course, was a very distinct difference between Tony Abbott as prime minister and Scott Morrison as prime minister, because when Tony Abbott was prime minister, this if you like, was a much earlier phase of China's assertiveness. And so Abbott responding to situations was operating in a very different environment to that of Morrison.

Sam Roggeveen: Your answer there focuses on China, which is understandable. It's the major foreign policy theme running throughout the book and running throughout this period of coalition government. But the other big one is the alliance. So is that - over the period of those three prime ministerships - is that a story simply of continuity as well? Or has Morrison put his own stamp on that alliance management?

Paul Kelly: I think Morrison has most definitely put his own stamp on alliance management. And this is a response to the situation he faced. Morrison made a decision very early on in his prime ministership, that Australia was facing a far more difficult world. A world filled with dangers, risks and threats. A world being transformed. A world where the rules-based order was under threat. In many ways his focus was China. But it wasn't just China. So essentially, what Morrison decided was that he had to respond to this world. And there were three operating principles in his response. The first was to strengthen the alliance partnership, to both deepen and broaden the alliance. Deepen the alliance in terms of the nuclear submarine initiative. Deepen the alliance in terms of cyber security, in terms of weapon systems, guided missiles. But also broaden the alliance - and particular, push for the Quad, which eventually was established by President Biden at the leaders level. So this was an example of broadening the Alliance into the network of the Indo-Pacific. So essentially, what happened here was we saw fresh and important initiatives coming from Scott Morrison as Prime Minister dealing with the alliance, facing a more assertive China, a China that he believed was posing a significant danger to Australia. The other two aspects of Morrison's response were to build up better networks of cooperation between Australia and the Indo-Pacific, both in bilateral and in regional terms. So we saw this in terms of his attitude towards Japan, towards India towards Indonesia; attempting to build stronger ties with the ASEAN nations. And finally, his response was to strengthen Australia's defence capability. We saw this in terms of increases in the defence budget. And of course, the AUKUS initiative with the United States.

Sam Roggeveen: I've got lots of questions for you about AUKUS Paul, but first, I just want to return momentarily to China. We're now a couple of years into our deep-freeze period with Beijing. The trade measures by China are continuing. Australian ministers still can't get meetings with their Chinese counterparts. You say in the book that that situation is unsustainable. But do you see any evidence of a Morrison government plan to change this situation?

Paul Kelly: No, I don't think there is any constructive plan to change the situation, Sam, and I don't think there is from either side of Australian politics. And I think the reason for this, essentially, is that we face what I'd call a strategic conundrum here. That is, that obviously, Australia wants to improve the bilateral relationship with China. China's our major economic partner. This is very important. We have no meaningful communications at ministerial level. This is a major risk and setback for Australia. But I think the point to make about this is that the government cannot see any constructive means of doing this without making concessions in terms of Australian policy and politics, which are completely unacceptable. And I think that's also true of the Labor position. And Anthony Albanese, as Labor leader has warned that if there's a change of government, he doesn't see any immediate change in the relationship with China. So essentially, I think what we face here is a diplomatic stalemate, if you like. We'd like relations to improve, we can't see how this would happen. And in that sense, we may well be hostage to China's own calculations. One of the points I've made in the book is that essentially Morrison's very substantial achievement has been to defy China's economic coercion of Australia. And it may well be that various people in Beijing would have thought that Australia would have buckled by now to China's pressure. Well, that didn't happen. Australia hasn't buckled. And in terms of the first phase of this pressure from China, I think it's fair and accurate to conclude that Australia has stood up to and defied this economic coercion from China. And this is a not insignificant achievement from Morrison. I describe in the book, how he sees China's pressure on Australia in moral terms, in personal terms, and in strategic terms. And I think the way Morrison responded to China's pressure offers probably the most interesting and fascinating insights into him as a foreign policy prime minister.

Sam Roggeveen: Paul, I agree with your conclusion here about Australia's record under Morrison of having withstood this, conomic pressure campaign from Beijing  We've done very, very well. But that does kind of raise a question about this issue of diplomatic relations with Beijing and about this this deep freeze, as I described iit n my earlier question. And I think the question that arises is, so what   What does it matter if Australia continues to be locked out of diplomatic contact with with China? What does it matter if if this economic pressure campaign continues for a few more years, yet?  We've we've we've withstood the pressure pretty well, we've demonstrated that we're not going to buckle. Why don't we just leave well enough alone and wait for the Chinese side to find a face-saving way out?

Paul Kelly: Well, I think in one sense, that's what we're doing. I mean, the government, of course, wouldn't be so impolite as to put it that way. But essentially, I think that's where we are. We are waiting for a change of sentiment from China. And I think this is fairly clear. If we look at some of the fundamental calculations that Morrison has made, I think he's been guided throughout by two core principles. One is his profound conviction that if we don't stand up to China now that we'll be forced to stand up to China further on down the track from a far weaker strategic position. And so therefore, it is fundamentally sound for us to take this position now. Secondly, if you look at the attitude he's taken all the way through, he's tried to keep the door open to China, while at the same time following a policy of national resistance and resilience in both domestic and external terms. So he wants to be able to say, well, look, I've kept the door open, we are waiting for a change of sentiment on the part of China, we recognize that having a situation in which we have no meaningful communication with the single most important country in the Indo-Pacific is not a healthy situation for Australia. And I think this is an underlying recognition. There is clearly a sense of frustration on the part of senior ministers at their inability to deal with China effectively. This is not a desirable situation that any country would like to see itself in. And of course, the the difficult situation we face is that the United States communicates with China. The United States at head of government level deals with China, communicates with China, has a relationship with China and Australia doesn't. And I think that's an ongoing source of difficulty and embarrassment for the Australian government. While it has no solution, the fundamental issue, of course, is as global politics evolves, as the relationship between China and the United States evolves, as China reassesses, one of the questions is the extent to which China will begin to modify incrementally its attitude towards Australia. And perhaps we're seeing this already, in terms of some of the levels of economic coercion against Australia. There are signs that there might be a reassessment at the margin.

Sam Roggeveen: Well, let me now move to AUKUS, which I think it's uncontroversial to say is the signature foreign policy initiative of the Morrison prime ministership. This is a deal between the US, UK and Australia to share military technology - principally nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. I think arguably, it's the most dramatic shift in Australian foreign and defence policy in a generation. And the picture you paint in the book is that AUKUS was very much Morrison's idea and Morrison's initiative. So what AUKUS tell us about Morrison as a foreign policy leader?

Paul Kelly: I think Sam, it tells us a number of things. It tells us about Morrison's ambition. It tells us about Morrison's concern about Australia's strategic situation. It tells us that Morrison was prepared to innovate in terms of long-established strategic consistency, in terms of our relations with both the US and the UK. Now, there were two things that drove AUKUS. The first of course was China. And Australia's concern about China, China's assertiveness and Australia's belief and Morrison's belief that we had to strengthen Australia's capability. The second was Morrison's attitude as a conviction politician. And his belief that Australia had to take fresh initiatives. And it's true, from what I can see, and I describe this in the book, that this was Morrison's initiative and it was Morrison's vision. And he asked two questions of our defence establishment. The first was whether it was technically possible for Australia, not having a civil nuclear industry, to actually develop a nuclear-powered submarine fleet. And the answer to that was yes. Now that was different advice to what Malcolm Turnbull got just a few years earlier. Once he got that advice, Morrison had to take a second decision. And the second decision is whether he should launch a diplomatic offensive with the UK and the US to try to get in-principle agreement and support from them to support and develop an Australian nuclear-powered submarine fleet. And the important point to make about Morrison is - he made a judgement. And the judgment he made was that both President Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would be prepared to make that major strategic shift. In particular that the Americans were prepared to make a major strategic shift, which they had not contemplated before, and would be prepared to provide the most intimate secrets of submarine nuclear power technology to Australia. Now, Morrison made that judgment and he got that judgment right. But the way he did it tactically was very important. He got Boris Johnson on side first. And when Morrison raised the issue with President Biden, he did so at the three way UK meeting involving Johnson, Biden and Morrison. And it wasn't just Morrison putting the proposal to Biden, it was Morrison and Johnson together putting their proposal for AUKUS to President Biden. Now, of course, a lot of legwork had been done beforehand. There was a favourable response from the President. There had to be a lot of legwork done after that as well. But I think what this demonstrates, I think, is Morrison, as a strategist, as a conviction politician, and a long way simply from the 'marketing man' many of his critics depict him as right.

Sam Roggeveen: So you began your answer there by talking about Morrison as a policy innovator. I think it's fair to say though, is it not, that that is innovation very much within the mainstream tradition of Australian foreign policy, particularly on the alliance. So Morrison's very much, I mean, AUKUS was was really a doubling down on the alliance and a doubling down on the United States. And it did strike me after AUKUS was announced in September last year. One thing that supporters of the deal didn't talk about, and that was Donald Trump. AUKUS is a big bet on, a big long-term bet on the United States, but only nine months earlier, Trump had left office. And a few weeks before that, on the sixth of January, pro-Trump supporters had stormed Congress. So what makes Morrison and his team so confident that the US will be there for Australia as a stable, predictable and powerful player in Asian geopolitics?

Paul Kelly: Okay, there are two really fundamental issues that you've raised there. The first one I agree with very strongly. And that is that while Morrison has been a policy innovator, he's an innovator in terms of the Australian strategic tradition. I don't think there's any doubt about that. Whether it's a deepening of the alliance with the United States, pursuing new networks in the Indo-Pacific, or building Australia's capability. So I think that point is enormously important in terms of understanding what Morrison is like. Now, the second point is also critical and quite complex. I might just start by making a broad-based point. Fundamental to Morrison's judgment here is that the best course of action for Australia, given the coercion from China and the new competition we face from China, is to double down on the American alliance at the same time as strengthening strategic networks in the region. Morrison in particular, repudiates the argument made by quite a lot of Australian academics, that the United States is more unreliable now, given its domestic political fractures, manifested in various ways during both the Trump and Biden presidency. And because of internal factors in America, because America must be healed internally to be strong externally, it is therefore prudent for Australia to hedge against the alliance or put distance between Australia and the alliance and make a greater effort to accommodate China. Now, Morrison totally rejects that argument. And in fact, what he says is - that particular course of action would be a greater gamble for Australia. And the question here, of course, is that, given America remains the number one military power on earth, what would be the point of Australia distancing itself from the United States? What concessions could we possibly get from China in order to reward us for doing that? And, of course, the point here that I argue in the book is that no Australian Prime minister - Liberal or Labor - would attempt to do that, because it's simply not realistic. This then goes next to the particular question you raise about Trump. And I think this is a very important question. All I'd say about this is, and I think while Morrison hasn't put the situation in these exact terms to me, I think I describe his outlook generally. He thinks it would be a mistake for Australia to qualify our strategic relations with the United States simply because of concerns about a future Trump presidency. Morrison has said to me in the past, that he believes that Trump would have done the Quad at leaders level, which Biden subsequently did. And I think the private judgment of the Australian government - and we can never be certain about this - would be that if Donald Trump does come back as President of the United States, or if we get another figure of Trumpian inclinations, we shouldn't just assume that they would cancel the AUKUS agreement or seek to qualify or damage the AUKUS agreement. We shouldn't proceed on that basis. That it's worthwhile getting this agreement from an American administration, with all the momentum that carries with it for future administrations.

Sam Roggeveen: Quite apart from the geostrategic thinking that went into AUKUS, there is also the practical element, of course. And I just wonder, given the history that Australia has with submarine building, what odds you place on Australia ever getting its nuclear-powered submarines? Is there a chance that this deal could go as badly as the French deal did?

Paul Kelly: There are certainly risks. I don't think there's any doubt about that. And what I've said in the book is that this nuclear submarine deal, this is a truly daunting and unprecedented national project for Australia. This is not just an issue of defence procurement. This is not just an issue about building submarines in South Australia. This is going to require a whole-of-government approach and a whole-of-nation approach the like of which we have not seen for many, many years. So one of the fundamental questions is whether the Australian government has entered into a project that Australia as a country has the infrastructure, human resources, capability, bipartisanship and willpower to implement over a period of a couple of decades. Now, when you put it like that, of course, there's got to be a risk. I don't think there's any doubt there's a risk. It was enormously important that the Labor leadership came on board, and endorsed at once the AUKUS agreement, which means if there is a change of government at the May election this year, then Anthony Albanese as Labor Prime minister will also be committed to the project. But of course, a new government will have to take all sorts of decisions, particularly decisions that will be required from the 18-month assessment project which is now being conducted. So I think the answer to your question, Sam, is yes, there are most certainly risks. And I would identify in particular, three risks. One, of course, is what will be the design of this new submarine? How will this be sorted out, in terms of the negotiations with Britain and America? What will be the final upshot? We simply don't know the answer to that. And the answer to that is fundamental. Secondly, of course, there's the whole question of the local build in South Australia. And we've already had a number of very prominent defence experts in Australia warning us that it's really important that the first couple of submarines be built overseas. That we shouldn't try right from the start to build these submarines at home. And thirdly, of course, there's a question about the capability gap. We know that we won't get the submarines till about 2040. What happens in the interim? Well, of course, we're going to upgrade the Collins Class submarines, but most experts believe this doesn't solve the problem. So, there are very specific issues that have got to be addressed and that have got to be resolved in terms of this overall project. So the challenges facing future governments are going to be very significant.

Sam Roggeveen: Paul, the thing that I think surprised me most about your book, your portrait of Morrison is the apparent centrality of ideology in his thinking. In fact, in one of your interviews with him, you talk to him about his belief in, "a balance of power that favours freedom", a phrase that originates with Condoleezza Rice. And when you suggest that this could be dubbed the Morrison doctrine, he readily agrees and he invites you to coin that phrase, which you've done in the book. So to me, I found it surprising just how important that ideological framing is for Morrison. And I'd like to ask you, you interviewed Morrison specifically for the book, what might surprise our listeners about Morrison as a foreign policy thinker and leader. What personal quality or belief, do you see in Morrison that the public would perhaps not associate with him?

Paul Kelly: I think he's got very deep-seated philosophical views about Australia and the world. And I've identified these views. The first is the concept of state sovereignty. He sees the international system in terms of a competition between nation states, and he is focused, and probably obsessed about the idea of Australian sovereignty. And his concept of Australian sovereignty is tied to his view of Australian identity. So Morrison has a profound fixation on Australian identity. He points out that he traces his own family origins back to the First and Second Fleet. He is the member for Cook in that part of the world, which is southern Sydney, and takes in Botany Bay with all the historical ramifications involved in that. So Morrison sees Australia's foreign policy and sees the coercion from China not just as a foreign policy issue. He sees it in terms of Australian identity. And he sees the challenge that China poses to Australia going to the question of our sovereignty and our identity. He puts this on the record in the book very, very firmly saying the question here is whether we're going to be allowed to be the sort of country we want to be. To be the democracy we want to be. To further the concept of Australian identity the way we want to pursue it. So this idea of Australian identity is tied deeply to sovereignty. The other really important idea is his concept of democracy. And his approach to China is both an approach founded in power terms, but moral terms. He sees the contest with China in moral terms. This is about the competition between an autocratic communist state on the one hand, and liberal democracy on the other. And it's this sense of the moral competition which he puts a lot of weight on. This, therefore leads to the point you've just made. The point, when summarizing the essence of his foreign policy, he calls it seeking a new balance of power in the region, which, of course is about power, but a new balance of power that favours freedom, which is a moral issue. And he does borrow this term from Condoleezza Rice of 20 years ago, but applies it in a very different context, the context that Australia now faces. So in this sense, I think we see Morrison in a couple of ways. We see him as a conceptual thinker in foreign policy, I don't think there's any doubt about that at all, from what he says and what he does. But we also see him operating in very ambitious terms. He's running an ambitious policy. And if you run an ambitious policy, there are risks in running that policy. And so therefore, we've got to assess Morrison in terms of what he's trying to do - look at the ambition. Whether it's the ambition in terms of the Quad, his diplomacy for the Quad. Or whether it's his ambition in terms of the AUKUS deal, and there are risks involved in that. But the point I'd make about Morrison is, for better or worse, the decisions he's taken over the past three years are going to be the decisions that future Australian Governments live with, for better or worse for a long period of time.

Sam Roggeveen: Paul, I'm so sorry to tell you, we're out of time today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Paul Kelly: Sam. It's been great to talk with you. Thank you very much.

Sam Roggeveen: Paul's new Lowy Institute Paper Morrison's Mission is published this week by Penguin and is available for sale online and in Australian bookstores. Find out more about research and events from the Lowy Institute at lowyinstitute.org. Thank you for your company today on Lowy Institute Conversations, and we'll see you next time.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign and defence policy, China’s military forces, US defence and foreign policy, drones and other military technology. Also, trends in global democracy.