The world is looking at Australia and laughing
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The world is looking at Australia and laughing

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald

To have influence in the world, it is useful to present as a serious country with a functioning political system. At the moment, we look ridiculous.

No prime minister has served a full term since 2007. We jokingly compare ourselves to Italy — but if Labor wins government next year, then over the past half-decade Canberra will have seen more leaders than Rome.

Australia has become a joke in the eyes of the world as we busily change our leaders.

It would be easier to understand this sorry record if we were enduring a recession. But we are enjoying our 27th year of uninterrupted economic growth.

Parliament House has developed a brutal and pitiless culture. Politicians’ careers have sped up. The conventions that once governed behaviour have broken down. The rolling of Kevin Rudd in 2010 was a gateway drug that led to a permanent addiction to regicide. Politicians have forgotten how to ride out periods of unpopularity. And the public has lost the patience required to deal with hard issues such as energy and climate change.

Australia’s political achievements were once the object of international admiration. Social democrats from abroad admired the Hawke and Keating governments’ marriage of economic discipline and social solidarity. Conservatives appreciated the Howard government’s economic reforms and deft political management.

Now foreigners look at us and laugh. The political churn impairs our effectiveness as well as our attractiveness. Leaders who are always in survival mode find it hard to focus on the world. Domestic issues dominate their thinking.

Malcolm Turnbull was a worldly and capable prime minister. He dealt with Donald Trump as well as any Western leader did. He helped to resuscitate the Trans Pacific Partnership when Trump abandoned it. But he did not have the time or space to significantly affect Australia’s place in the world. He was not in office long enough — or securely enough — to make a lasting impact on our international relations.

Foreign policy is an experience game. Time at the crease matters. Longevity gives leaders confidence on foreign issues, as well as international relationships they can call upon.

In his first year as prime minister, John Howard looked uncomfortable in international meetings and there were early fumbles in key relationships. But over time, he developed strong personal relationships with world leaders including the presidents of the United States and China.

Julie Bishop became a fine foreign affairs minister: Well-liked, well-briefed and highly professional. She grew in stature over her five years in office (and four years as shadow foreign minister).

The combination of a lengthy stint in office and endless creative energy made Gareth Evans a significant foreign affairs minister.

What of the new team? It is a good sign that Scott Morrison elected to proceed with the planned prime ministerial trip to Jakarta this week. It is helpful that his new foreign affairs and defence ministers, Marise Payne and Christopher Pyne, have several years’ experience in international portfolios.

But all these individuals are taking on demanding new duties in a difficult political environment, up to their elbows in alligators, with an election around the corner. Morrison’s attention will inevitably be drawn to domestic matters. Many of his international interlocutors will assume he is simply minding the shop.

When the Liberal partyroom elected Turnbull prime minister, he said “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”. But for most of us —and not just foreign policy observers — this past decade in Australian politics has been dispiriting, not exciting.


Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions