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From fill-in to full-time Foreign Minister

Safe pair of hands: Foreign Minister Marise Payne (Photo: IISS/Flickr)
Safe pair of hands: Foreign Minister Marise Payne (Photo: IISS/Flickr)
Published 28 May 2019 14:00   0 Comments

On Sunday Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Marise Payne will be Minister for Foreign Affairs in his post-election cabinet. Selected to take over the portfolio last year after Julie Bishop’s resignation (and reportedly at her recommendation), Marise Payne had just eight months in the role before the election was called.

As previous minister for defence and a veteran of 21 years in parliament, Payne was seen as a safe pair of hands. She managed the portfolio – including publicised visits to China, Indonesia (twice), India, the United States (twice), Thailand, Myanmar, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea (twice), Nauru, France, Britain, plus Brussels and Geneva – without causing any negative media stir.

No gaffes. No controversy. About the worst she was accused of was being super-cautious. Assuming this was the brief she was given by the Prime Minister, she fulfilled it admirably.

Now Payne has the chance to put her own stamp on the position. What passions might she bring to the role?

Washington talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in January (Photo: US Department of State/Flickr) 

Passion projects

To be fair, foreign ministers are required to cover everything: they don’t get to decide that they are just not that into one continent or another. And then they need to deal with events (or as I think of them, events, dear boy, events). A global crisis can quickly become the defining issue in their term.

There is relatively little discretionary time for things that they don’t have to do, but just want to do. However, there is some.

For example, Julie Bishop was passionate about the New Colombo Plan, a program that has given 50,000 young people the opportunity to live and learn in Asia. Other areas included women’s economic empowerment and innovation in Australia’s aid program.

Based on Payne’s 11 formal speeches in the role, what indications are there of the passions she might pursue when she can?

Enduring security

In her speeches to date, there’s a definite sense of continuity with her previous job as Defence minister. Security is brought to the fore – as the first duty of the Australian government – and economic issues can feel less central, more as a means to protect ourselves and stay safe.

Clearly Payne will continue with Australia’s economic diplomacy. She’s made strong statements supporting the India Economic Strategy and announced measures to increase business’ role in aid delivery. But I don’t think her passion project will come from the economic agenda. She’s more likely to ask “where is the battlefield today?”.

In January, addressing the Raisina Dialogue, India (Photo: MEAphotogallery/Flickr)

Regional focus

Payne is strongly focused on the region, defined as the Indo-Pacific. (In her speeches, “Asia” as a region is not referred to, the only references are sub-regions such as Southeast Asia and the names of specific institutions, such as the East Asia Summit). She makes the case that the Indo-Pacific is key to Australia as the most dynamic region in the world.

She is also very focused on the Pacific Islands, describing Australia as having a unique role to play. In her first speech she noted that she comes to her new role as with “valuable experience of the concerns and aspirations of the Pacific, built indeed over many years”. Her first international visit was to Nauru for the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum and she’s announced initiatives such as a Pacific Fusion Centre and expansion of the Pacific Labour Scheme.

A role for Australia

The words used to describe Australia’s international role can be revealing, whether it’s Kevin Rudd’s “creative middle power diplomacy”, Malcolm Turnbull’s enthusiasm for living in “the most exciting times in human history” or Bishop’s attempt to convince Australia it’s a “top 20 nation”.

Foreign ministers are required to cover everything … A global crisis can quickly become the defining issue in their term.

Payne hasn’t settled on a repeated phrase yet, but the concept is clear: an Australia that is “engaged and active and agile” in advocating its position and is “an independent and clear voice seeking to shape our region for the better”.

In saying what Australia stands for, she is succinct: “we stand for an international order based on rules and cooperation.” Her speech to the UN General Assembly recognises “the reality of a world in which the power of great states shapes the international system” but holds true to the simple proposition that we are safer in a world managed “by agreed rules rather than by the exercise of power alone.”

Her Australia is pragmatic; in a time of rising nationalism and geo-political competition the response is to “defend our interests and be in a position to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented”. In a more competitive and contested era, it needs to be self-reliant: “Australia is taking responsibility for our own security and prosperity.”

But rather than being buffeted by the “more uncertain, competitive and contested world”, Payne offers a real sense that Australia has agency, weight and influence to try to shape a region that is favourable to its interests. A clear area of passion will be setting rules and norms in what she calls “the great project of an inclusive, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

Talks in January with UN Secretary-General António Guterres (Photo: Evan Schneider/United Nations)

Human rights and gender equality

As a parliamentarian, Payne has a reputation for caring about human rights, good governance and civil society. There is a sense of this in her launch of Australia’s Strategy for the Abolition of the Death Penalty and remarks on freedom of expression, religion and belief at the UN Human Rights Council. It’s easy to imagine other projects fuelled by this passion.

Payne is also avowedly a feminist and is on the record encouraging women in defence and security. On Sunday she was also named as Minister for Women, giving the potential for synergy between these roles.

As a careful minister, it’s hard to be sure what mark Payne will make in her first full-term. Of her speeches, only the one to the Australian Institute of International Affairs set out to give a broad vision for the role. But there are indications.

I applaud her commitment to engaging with Australia’s region. And I hope the release of the Soft Power Review sparks a focus on how Australia can influence behaviour and thinking in the region through the power of attraction and ideas.

Australia’s presidential politics

(Photo: Saeed Khan via Getty)
(Photo: Saeed Khan via Getty)
Published 20 May 2019 14:30   0 Comments

Watch enough sport in Australia and the so-called “Americanisation” of culture is readily apparent. In Australian rules football, where contract arrangements increasingly follow the example of US sports, commentators often slip from referring to resting players on the bench or the pine to being in the “dugout”, a baseball term; or coaches describe the frenetic play by borrowing the word “scrimmage” from the NFL.

So too politics. In Australia ­– as a reminder for foreign readers ­­– the prime minister is not directly elected in the fashion of a US president. Voters elect local members, and the party selects the leader and there is no direct mention of the “Prime Minister” in the Australian Constitution. But anyone watching the 2019 election campaign would have sworn this was a contest where Scott Morrison was himself on everyone’s ballot paper.

By focusing on himself, Morrison also made it all about Shorten, and forced the news media to focus its coverage on the choice between the two leaders.

In political advertising on social media, it was Morrison’s face and Morrison’s message. In the traditional media, in newspapers and on television, the Liberal campaign made Morrison’s opposite number Bill Shorten the exclusive focus as “the bill Australia can’t afford”.

This election wasn’t the first time US presidential style intruded into an Australian election campaign, but the emphasis on the choice between the two leaders goes some way to describing the surprise result. Morrison was criticised during the campaign and in the lead up for making it all about him. But his tactic is perhaps clear in hindsight. That by focusing on himself, he also made it all about Shorten, and forced the news media to focus its coverage on the choice between the two leaders, as much as Labor tried to emphasise its team. And Shorten’s biggest consistent negative in the opinion polling over recent years was the public’s dislike of Shorten himself.

Of course, that same opinion polling also had Labor ahead in two-party preferred terms, which turned out wrong. Exit polling on the night also had Labor winning. The betting markets backed Labor. I thought Labor was going to win, and wrote back in January in an article for The Diplomat, “Barring a political miracle, it seems inevitable the conservative government will fall.” Well, as he claimed on Saturday night, Morrison got his miracle.

There is also a tendency in post-election analysis to assume every move by the victor was inspired and see the loser’s campaign as fundamentally flawed. But it is never so simple, as an Australian political operator with close ties US Republicans reminded me some years back after he’d spent some time in the US, watching the campaign where Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama. There were still things the Romney campaign did well, he insisted.

Professional politicos have long cultivated international ties, with Australians especially interested in trends from the US and Britain. It’s not for nothing that Australia’s political system is sometimes referred to as a “Washminster” style of government, and flushed with success from Saturday’s election, Morrison won’t be letting go the focus on his one-man leadership show anytime soon. (At least I got that bit right.)

Australia’s election: what the hell just happened?

Pundits and headline writers have painted this as a miracle for the Coalition but that framing is based on the fact expectations for Labor went unmet (Photo: William West via Getty)
Pundits and headline writers have painted this as a miracle for the Coalition but that framing is based on the fact expectations for Labor went unmet (Photo: William West via Getty)
Published 20 May 2019 10:30   0 Comments

Not everyone who was hoping for a Labor victory took the loss well. But if, as the sore losers claimed, the unexpected return of the centre-right Morrison Government shows that Australians are racist, greedy, mean-spirited and stupid, then it must have come over the electorate rather quickly.

After all, this is roughly the same group of voters that elected Labor leader Kevin Rudd and his party to office in 2007, and his successor Julia Gillard to minority government in 2010. It overwhelmingly passed a same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017. It is a nation which, according to Lowy Institute polling, is generally well disposed to immigration. And the respected Australian Election Study shows that across policy areas such as multiculturalism, abortion rights, gender equality, indigenous issues, recreational drugs and immigration, Australian attitudes have become steadily more liberal since the 1980s.

The other popular explanation for the result was that the Labor opposition had taken too big a risk with its bold policy agenda, leaving it vulnerable to the government’s “scare campaign”. Possible, but there are at least three other ways to interpret the evidence. First, maybe the policy agenda was right but the salesman was wrong. Or second, it’s not that the salesmanship was poor or the policies too bold, they just happened to be the wrong policies.

Then there’s a third explanation, one which will bring even less comfort to Labor: the policy agenda was irrelevant. The result simply reflected the fact that the Labor party has become steadily less popular with voters since the early 1980s. Granted, Labor’s primary vote did spike in the 1993 and 2007 elections, and no doubt its supporters were hoping for something similar this time around. But the long-term trend is clear and was reinforced at this election, with a primary vote to Labor of 33.9%, almost 1% down on the dismal 2016 result. The Liberal-Nationals Coalition primary vote declined too, again consistent with long-term trends (although the decline is more gradual and halting for the Coalition than for Labor).

Scott Morrison, joined by wife Jenny and daughters Lilly and Abbey, celebrates at the Liberal Party reception on Saturday night (Photo: Brook Mitchell/Getty)

The result, in terms of lower-house seats, was a narrow victory for the Coalition, meaning it will either preside over a minority government or a paper-thin majority. The pundits and headline writers have painted this as a miracle come-from-behind victory for the Coalition which gives Prime Minister Scott Morrison overwhelming authority, but that framing is based entirely on the fact that expectations of a Labor victory were unmet, expectations which were, it seems, based on dodgy polling.

So rather than this being for Morrison a “Keating 1993” moment – when then prime minister Paul Keating snared what appeared an unlikely majority ­– it is probably more accurate to think in terms of Gillard’s minority government win in 2010 or Turnbull’s one-seat majority in 2016. In turn, that means we’re not looking at a revived and rejuvenated Liberal government but at a party which has limped to the slimmest of victories against a Labor opposition even more exhausted of support and sympathy than anyone imagined.

The new Morrison government has a wafer-thin mandate and no policy platform to speak of. The best-case scenario is that, like the minority Gillard Government, Morrison gets a lot done. The worst case is something like Turnbull’s 2016 term. Given that several of the new centrist cross-bench members have promised strong action on climate change, we may see Morrison caught between his own party’s right wing and the independents keeping the government in office.

Labor leader Bill Shorten, flanked by his wife Chloe, concedes defeat (Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty)

Don’t assume, then, that the chaos of the last decade is over. It may actually get worse because the historical forces driving that chaos have not abated. Former Liberal leader Tony Abbott inadvertently put his finger on the reason why. In his graceless statement on the death of the Labor Party’s longest-serving prime minister, Bob Hawke, Abbott claimed Hawke’s “key achievements ­– financial deregulation, tariffs cuts, and the beginnings of privatisation – went against the Labor grain … he had a Labor heart, but a Liberal head”. That Abbott saw the grief for this beloved figure as an opportunity to make a partisan point is symptomatic of the ideological bubble in which our politicians operate. So convinced are they of the urgency of scoring a point against their opponents that ordinary human decencies begin to give way.

Globalisation, the economic liberalisation of the 1980s, the decline of blue-collar jobs in advanced economies, the feminisation of the workforce, and the death of communism have all swept through Australia, leaving both our major parties behind.

And yet, didn’t Abbott have a point? Hawke liberalised the economy and pulled the teeth of the union movement to encourage wage restraint. In the process, the entire basis of Australian party politics was undermined. That arrangement had been simple and clear: organised labour on one side, capital on the other.

What Abbott perhaps fails to appreciate is that Hawke’s reforms were a disaster for the Liberal Party because it deprived the Liberals of an enemy. With the union movement blunted, what was the Liberal Party really for? That question became even harder to answer when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The Liberal Party had already been deprived of its domestic adversary, and now its other raison d’etre, fighting the Cold War, had also ended.

Here at the Lowy Institute, we are dedicated to studying Australia’s place in the world, but sometimes it helps to reverse the perspective. Global trends have had a transformative effect on our domestic politics. Globalisation, the economic liberalisation of the 1980, the decline of blue-collar jobs in advanced economies, the feminisation of the workforce, and the death of communism have all swept through Australia, leaving both our major parties behind. This election once again demonstrates how drained of authority and purpose they both are. Trouble is, we still have no idea what, if anything, can replace them.

What a Shorten government will mean for the US-Australia alliance

Little differences (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty)
Little differences (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty)
Published 17 May 2019 14:30   0 Comments

To start, I think it’s pretty likely that Labor will win on Saturday, meaning a change of government in Australia. So my comments will be based on that assumption.

In broad terms, a Labor government is not going to present any major challenges to the US alliance and its central role in Australian international policy. Bill Shorten’s approach, and that of his likely ministers, is very centrist on foreign and defence policy.

It will be in the detail of alliance management and the day-to-day operational side of things were minor irritations may crop up.

There are two mutually reinforcing trends at play here: first, a good number of the key players are decidedly pro-US and strongly support the place of the alliance; and second, even those on the left of the party who are more sceptical and might otherwise try to push for a more “independent” foreign policy believe that defence and security issues are a potential political vulnerability, and see retaining tight ties to Washington as an easy way to see off that potential weakness.

Equally, I don’t see any appetite for any significant adjustment to the big macro settings of Australia’s policy at this point in time. In basic terms, expect the status quo to continue.

Labor leader Bill Shorten during a visit to Australian troops serving in Afghanistan (Photo: Defence Department)

But it will be in the detail of alliance management and the day-to-day operational side of things were minor irritations may crop up. We are still not particularly clear on Shorten’s foreign policy preferences. He has so far evinced little real interest in foreign and defence policy – one person I know who briefed him two months back reported that he looked like a kid being forced to eat his greens – so much will depend on personnel and issues.

First, will Shorten delegate foreign policy to the Foreign Minster (a la Paul Keating to Gareth Evans) or will he, as has been the overwhelming trend in recent years, drive foreign policy out of the Prime Minister’s Office? If so, who he appoints as his senior international/foreign policy person will be key.

Second, much will also depend on who is appointed as Foreign Minister and to a lesser extent Defence Minister. At present it looks as if Penny Wong will continue from shadow to the foreign ministry and Richard Marles will take up defence. But should it turn out the other way – and there are whispers of this – with Marles as Foreign Minister, it’ll matter because he is certainly much more in the pro-US camp than Wong.

So what are the issues that’ll test the alliance under Labor? Quite a few things could crop up, but I’ll focus on three main ones.


Labor has tried to run a small target on China, flat batting efforts to try and get the Opposition to support opinions put forward by former party figures, the likes of Keating and Bob Carr. But there is a chance that Labor moves a little away from the current China status quo ­– that is to move from the more critical position that the Coalition has established.

Not likely immediately, but differences over China are probably the biggest potential challenge.


The “Pacific step up” has been an interesting initiative of the Morrison government and plainly about using Australia’s considerable heft in the South Pacific to try to counter China’s efforts to increase its influence. In approach and design, and to the point the policy intersects with ties to Washington, it runs counter to the way Labor has historically approached aid and development issues, and there’s the distinct possibility of a shift here.

Labor is planning to put nearly $250 million back into the aid program and it is unlikely to operationalise this in the same way as its predecessors.

Defence spending

There’s a reason Labor ministers and the Defence Department have historically had a fraught relationship. Australia has committed to a very large defence spending program and Labor has said it will deliver on the ambitious commitments made in the 2016 Defence White Paper. But, it has also made a series of very, very ambitious spending plans across government, and in areas which are of a higher political priority than defence.

Labor’s plans are predicated on getting controversial tax reforms through the parliament which it will find difficult to achieve in what is almost certain to be a divided senate. If Labor is looking for savings, it’ll go to Defence pretty quickly. And this will annoy Washington, who already thinks Australia isn’t doing or spending enough in the portfolio.

Trying to grin, and bear it

Finally, I think Labor will find it harder diplomatically managing relations with the Trump White House than the Coalition. This is in part a question of party alignment – Labor finds Democrats easier to get along with understandably – but also it will find it harder to keep the rictus grin of the face when dealing with some of the – ahem – more unusual aspects of the Trump administration.

So, while the change in government is not going to mean big changes or challenges in the alliance, there is a higher chance of friction and frustration. That’s not to say it will happen, just that alliance management will be a tad more difficult under Labor.

Peeling back the label in Australia’s America and China relationships

Navigating great powers: SailGP Championship on the San Francisco Bay this month (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty)
Navigating great powers: SailGP Championship on the San Francisco Bay this month (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty)
Published 16 May 2019 12:00   0 Comments

For American author F. Scott Fitzgerald, the test of a great intellect was the ability to “hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” By this measure, Australian foreign policy has been very smart for decades.

Australian leaders have long used a duality to describe and guide our foreign relations: China is our most important economic partner; America is our most important security partner.

Australia has not been alone in keeping ideas about “economics” and “security” separate. The success of globalisation since at least the 1970s was based on most countries doing similarly. Security was something managed by states; economics was something driven by private interests, safeguarded by global institutions, and characterised by interdependence.

But today, security and economics are rapidly converging. This is best captured by the growing popularity in policy circles of the term “geoeconomics” (a somewhat awkward portmanteau of a portmanteau, denoting that matters of geography, politics and economics are increasingly interlinked).

For Australia, this has put the duality at the core of our foreign policy under pressure.

Photo: Getty Images

The obvious stress fracture appeared in 2016, when the Australian Government rejected two Chinese bids for a majority stake in electricity network Ausgrid – a deal that would have netted the New South Wales state government around $10 billion. This was an about-face from the previous year, when the sale of the Port of Darwin to a Chinese company barely raised a red flag inside government.

A strategy that navigates the rise of geoeconomics, and articulates the values and interests inherent in our respective relationships with America and China, will be a central foreign policy challenge.

The government’s 2018 decision to effectively ban Huawei from the roll-out of Australia’s 5G network – despite the cost to Australian consumers – underscored the new reality, that security and economic interests are no longer mutually exclusive.

The convergence of economics and security is not just noticeable in relations with China. Under President Donald Trump’s “America First” ideology, America is increasingly putting security and economics on the same side of the ledger, and asking its allies and partners to do likewise.

Creating a strategy that navigates the rise of geoeconomics, and articulates the values and interests inherent in our respective relationships with America and China, will be a central foreign policy challenge for the incoming federal government.

Already, we are seeing politicians trying on new tropes for size. On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison referred to America as a “friend” and China as a “customer”.

Incidentally, this is not a complete mischaracterisation: Australia’s economic relationship with China is largely transactional rather than trust-based. China may be our most significant trading partner, but America remains our largest source of foreign direct investment. This is something that the “China is our most important economic partner” narrative has tended to underplay.

Nonetheless, the “customer” label missed the mark. A customer relationship is cursory only. Conversely, a long-term, productive relationship with China, with open channels of communication and clarity about our respective interests and expectations, is essential.

Photo: Getty Images

But Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s response – that he sees China not as a customer but “a complex, dynamic society” like “Japan or Korea or Indonesia” – is also an inadequate frame. For one, by listing China in a catalogue of Asian countries, Shorten is inadvertently playing into the “Asian values” narrative that China has invoked to dismiss legitimate criticisms of its own actions. Moreover, China is in fact not a society like any other. The incentives and actions of its citizens and businesses are increasingly influenced by, and co-opted to serve the interests of, the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party.

As Australia’s political leaders seek to settle on the best way to characterise our relationships with the United States and China, they would do well to keep three things in mind.

First, China is actively pushing economics and security together across our region, epitomised in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China uses its economic footprint for strategic gain and political leverage. Complete abandonment of the economic-security duality would play into this worldview.

Second, and on the other hand, a strict separation between economics and security is also risky. The Victorian Government’s surprise decision last year to sign a memorandum of understanding with China supporting BRI highlights the shortcomings of such an approach. Victoria failed to see the geopolitical forest for the investment opportunity trees. Thus, while the duality should not be abandoned, it does need some new caveats.

Third, narratives are not just useful in foreign affairs, but are also important for keeping domestic audiences informed and engaged. This is particularly significant in the case of Australian businesses – which no longer have the luxury of outsourcing security concerns to “rough men and women on the border”. Instead, Australian businesses are increasingly front-line players in security matters.

Our companies must defend against state-sponsored cyber and information attacks. Their business dealings are used as pawns in “sharp power” gambits by foreign states (consider exporters’ uncertainty about whether their coal is being held up at Chinese ports to “punish” the Australian government; or media outlets facing intimidation and discrimination for holding “anti-China” views). Australian institutions also engage in research and development of “dual-use” technologies such as artificial intelligence and biotech which will have both civilian and strategic applications. Consequently, any narrative that fails to recognise and include business as a key national security stakeholder will not be sustainable.

In his recent book, On Grand Strategy, John Lewis Gaddis reminds us that the F. Scott Fitzgerald test applies to strategists, too. He also furnishes readers with another sage piece of advice: leaders do not always need to be precise and decisive; sometimes, dithering is useful.

In this sense, the next government should not feel compelled to force Australia’s relationship with China and the United States into neat, discrete boxes. Different, at times conflicting, aspects of each relationship can coexist in our national narrative at the same time.

Our leaders should also take their time to fine-tune how we conceptualise the interplay between our economic and security interests. With China-US economic and security relations in a state of flux, a mercurial President in the Oval Office and an American election looming, we have time on our side to develop a strategy that fits the changing circumstances.

Young, energised, ready to vote, and maybe decide two elections

With two-thirds of India’s population under 35, their votes could well sway the outcome (Photo: Arun Sankar via Getty)
With two-thirds of India’s population under 35, their votes could well sway the outcome (Photo: Arun Sankar via Getty)
Published 16 May 2019 10:30   0 Comments

Two of the world’s democracies on either side of the Indian Ocean will see their elections culminate this weekend. Australians will go to the polls on Saturday, while Sunday marks the final day of India’s staggered voting season.

On the face of it, there is little to link the two elections: one country is poised to replace its conservative government, while the other is likely to double down in support of its incumbent populist leader. In one country there are 16 million voters, the other has 900 million potential voters.

But one facet is the same: the influence of young voters in both places will play a major role in the outcome.

These Australian school kids can’t vote – yet (Photo: William West via Getty)

In Australia – where voting is compulsory – the Australian Electoral Commission last month announced a record enrolment rate across the board, an all-time high of 96.8%, and of those aged between 18 and 24, almost 89% are enrolled, or 1.69 million people. The figure is just shy of the enormous voter turnout for the 2017 same-sex marriage survey, where youth enrolment was at 1.7 million. 

Far from the general view that young people are apathetic, they are engaged and keen to be part of the political process.

The figures reveal that, far from the general view that young people are apathetic, they are engaged and keen to be part of the political process.

According to youth radio station Triple J, young people could decide the outcome in up to 20 marginal seats. These include Melbourne and Brisbane, which cover each city’s CBD, and Canberra. The high proportion of young voters in those seats could have an impact on which way they go. 

Of the issues that affect young people, alongside the traditional concerns of jobs and education, there is a somewhat surprising new entrant: mental health. Mental health issues are rising among young people in Australia and globally. The major parties and the Greens have extensive mental health policies, with the incumbent Coalition promising more than half a billion dollars towards youth mental health services.

Young Australians are also extremely concerned about climate change. In fact, environmental issues could well be the driving force behind the record enrolment numbers. If tens of thousands of school students are willing to bear the wrath of parents, teachers and political leaders and walk out of school to rally for action on climate change, it’s likely that the protest will translate into votes for those old enough. 

Across the Indian Ocean and young people in India are similarly politically energised. With two-thirds of the population under the age of 35, their votes could well sway the outcome. There is a precedent to this: in 2014, the youth vote is credited with helping usher in the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Modi.

But will they vote, and will they again vote for Modi?

In the five years since the last election, the landscape has shifted significantly. With a youth bulge combined with newfound aspirations to climb the ladder, the need for more jobs to be added to the market is pulsatingly urgent (India’s demographic timebomb). The problems of unemployment and underemployment have increasingly been making global headlines in recent years, such as the time when a study found unemployment at a 45-year high, or when 19 million people applied for 63,000 vacant menial jobs on the railways.

The ascension of Modi brought with it the politics of populism and a rise in Hindu nationalism, but also some policy missteps – such as demonetisation – which has led some to question whether Modi is as solidly capable as his steely reputation would have him.

The youth vote is one that appears polarised. On one hand, the seething tension and anger over the lack of jobs could manifest in a large-scale protest vote against Modi, while on the other, their faith in his populist promises could be the key to returning him to power.

One thing is certain: young Indians are extremely politically and electorally aware.  A March poll found that eight in 10 believe that voting should be compulsory, while three-quarters said they thoroughly research local candidates before voting. The poll, of 200,000 Indians – mostly aged between 18 and 35 and mostly in major cities – also had strong feelings about the way elections were conducted. 

Despite this, many young people might miss out on exercising their rights to vote, thanks to a lack of structures in place to allow for reliable postal or distance voting. With many living away from their home towns for work or study, travelling to a relevant polling booth might simply not be an option.


What’s on offer? Pacific policy and Australia’s election

Is it a hot topic at Fiji’s port? What are major parties in Australia offering in terms of Pacific policy? (Photo: Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Is it a hot topic at Fiji’s port? What are major parties in Australia offering in terms of Pacific policy? (Photo: Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Published 16 May 2019 06:00   0 Comments

The Pacific has undergone a foreign policy renaissance of sorts, with politicians and policymakers falling over themselves to proclaim their commitment to the region and its vital importance to Australia. Leaders of both major parties have been increasingly speaking about the region, while starting to place the Pacific at the very centre of their foreign policy agendas.

Despite an apparent unity ticket, there are some important differences in how the major parties may approach the Pacific after the election.

But with the Australian election to be held on Saturday, what are both major parties offering in terms of Pacific policy and reengagement with the region?

At face value, there is a bipartisan consensus on the importance of the region that will likely continue regardless of the outcome at the polls. There is broad support of the premises of the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper and the 2016 Defence White Paper, where the Pacific and its strategic significance takes centre stage. Both parties have also begun to commit greater resources towards the Pacific and speak about the region in a different manner, shown by the adoption of a more inclusive language that emphasises “partnership not paternalism” and Australia’s membership of “a Pacific family”.

Despite this apparent unity ticket, there are some differences in how the major parties may approach the Pacific after the election. The starkest difference is the broader regional role that Australia should play.

Scott Morrison outlines his Pacific strategy in November (Photo:

The Coalition has emphasised importance in its Pacific policy, echoing the suggestion by some that Australia’s place in the region should be underpinned by what is effectively a policy of “strategic denial”, to ensure that Canberra is not challenged by an increasingly present China. Labor, on the other hand, has emphasised the region’s economic development and the impact of climate change, opting to avoid the language of confrontation but rather focus on “the economic betterment of the ten million people of the Pacific Islands themselves” and for Australia to become the “partner of choice” for the region (although the latter phrase has been used by both sides of politics).

Morrison’s Pacific pivot has been marked by establishing new diplomatic posts across the region, proposing new annual bilateral security meetings, creating a new development financing facility (echoing a similar proposal by Labor), and a strong commitment to building Australian naval presence and regional defence capacity such as its joint redevelopment of the Lobrum naval base with the US on PNG’s Manus Island.

These initiatives, along with seeking stronger bilateral ties with nations in the region such as Fiji and multinational efforts such as the four-party electrification of Papua New Guinea, all aim to deny the opportunity for Beijing to further entrench itself politically and militarily in the Pacific. A re-elected Coalition government would likely continue this effort of effective strategic denial, working closely with allies and Pacific island nations to rebuild and maintain Australia’s regional primacy.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten speaks at the Lowy Institute in 2018 on a Labor approach to foreign policy

Labor will likely seek to rectify what has long been a thorn in the Coalition’s side by committing to more ambitious action on climate change and emissions reduction. After many years of inaction and damaging ministerial blunders, changes in environmental policy would undoubtedly be met with enthusiasm across the Pacific. While Labor is not following a policy that could be interpreted as strategic denial like that of the Coalition, Labor’s initial proposal for an infrastructure financing facility and to double current levels of development funding suggest that it will seek to offer alternatives to Beijing’s tempting concessional loans and infrastructure programs.

Labor has also pledged changes in key elements of current policy which will raise the Pacific’s profile in Canberra’s international relations, committing to “put the Pacific front and centre in [its] regional foreign policy” and to encourage regional collaboration and economic empowerment. The reinstatement of the portfolios of international development and the Pacific back into cabinet, re-evaluation of visa and travel arrangements with PNG, as well as the expansion of the Seasonal Workers Program and Australian regional broadcasting services, have all been signalled as likely changes to Pacific policy should Labor form the next government.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the Pacific looks set to benefit. However, there are shortcomings to either approach that will need to be addressed by the major parties.

The Coalition’s focus may help to reassert Canberra’s place as the region’s preeminent partner, but its failure to effectively climate change and implement more ambitious environmental targets may deny Australia future opportunities. Labor’s continued ambiguity over the “partner of choice” concept has also been criticised, overlooking the increasingly complex geopolitics of the region and presuming that Pacific nations will have to choose one development partner over another.

Nonetheless, there is no escaping that both major parties offer more substantive regional policies than in previous years. The centrality of the Pacific in policymaking is likely to continue. Whether the cornerstone will be Labor’s focus on development and climate change, or the Liberals’ increased interest in strategic denial, that’s a decision that will rest in the hands of the Australian electorate when people go to the ballot box on Saturday.

Time to reverse the Indonesian language disaster on our shores

If only to bargain in the Bali markets, you’d think learning Indonesian would be popular in Australia (Photo: Gustavo Thomas/Flickr)
If only to bargain in the Bali markets, you’d think learning Indonesian would be popular in Australia (Photo: Gustavo Thomas/Flickr)
Published 15 May 2019 06:00   0 Comments

Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong’s efforts to set out a vision for Australia’s foreign policy on Asia, embodied in Labor’s “FutureAsia” plans, are admirable. The specific focus of fostering knowledge of and engagement with Southeast Asia is welcome.

A key part of enhancing Southeast Asia knowledge capability is investing in languages, with Indonesian being the most obvious example. Australia needs to begin by taking positive steps to address the image problem of Indonesia that affects interest in Indonesian language studies.

Australia needs to begin by taking positive steps to address the image problem of Indonesia that affects interest in Indonesian language studies.

Several years ago, I taught Indonesian in a primary school and high school in Victoria. In the classroom, I was confronted by my students’ negative perceptions of Indonesia. I had assumed that students might want to study Indonesian, at the very least in the hopes of going on a future holiday to Bali and learning how to bargain in the markets.

Instead, it was clear that the vague understanding many students had about Indonesia came through exposure to negative Australian media or their parents’ views.

A lack of knowledge on basic facts contributes to these misperceptions. For example, as a Lowy Institute survey found, most Australians are not aware that Indonesia is a democracy. Since 2015, the number of people surveyed who correctly answered that Indonesia is a democracy has dropped by 10%.

Basic facts about Indonesia should be common knowledge in Australia, because it affects the attitudes people have towards Indonesia.

In my former role as a primary school teacher, I had an 11-year-old student tell me that they didn’t want to learn Indonesian because their mum and dad said that Indonesians are terrorists. It’s pretty hard to reason with an 11-year-old when extensive media coverage of terrorism, general public perceptions and perhaps even their own parents might support this false stereotype.

In addition to the image problem, Australia needs to radically overhaul and reinvest in institutional support for Indonesian studies.

Daily, I live through the consequences caused when universities make fatal decisions to cancel their Indonesian language programs, as a number of universities in Australia have done. These decisions are made, in part, because of the broader absence of a social, economic and political ecosystem in Australia that supports Indonesian studies.

“Taste of Australia” in Jakarta (Photo: Australian Embassy Jakarta/Flickr)

Seriously low numbers of primary and high school uptake in Indonesian create negative downstream consequences for higher education institutions. In turn, the scale of Asian language programs in primary schools and high schools across Australia affects enrolments in languages at university.

In my high school, there were just five students in the Year 12 Indonesian class. When high schools choose to axe their Indonesian program, as in fact my old high school later did, this has major flow on effects for universities.

Language programs often depend upon on a steady number of students in the intermediate to advanced language classes. Without strong numbers of students graduating from high school having studied Indonesian language, the potential pool of students who go on to study Indonesian at university diminishes rapidly. When there are so few university students choosing to study Indonesian, this presents challenges for the viability of university programs.

But I also see the opposite problem. On my campus, I come across students who want to study Indonesian, but can’t. While studying and gaining credit through another university is theoretically possible, its often a logistical impossibility because of the challenges that students face to coordinate classes at two different universities and campuses.

As a result, some students that I know who learnt Indonesian in high school stopped studying Indonesian. This is an incredible waste of talent and interest in Indonesia.

Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong speaking at the Lowy Institute on 1 May. 

So what can be done? Penny Wong’s vision on greater engagement with Southeast Asia is admirable but needs to be backed up with a long-term plan to enhance both general and specialist knowledge of the region.

Any major effort to make Indonesian studies a national priority in Australia would require a holistic approach. The government must take the initiative and acknowledge its role as an important driver of incentives for change. This includes incentives for students to choose Asian languages and support for universities to maintain or enhance their Asian language programs.

Shifting the dire predicament of Indonesian language studies in Australia in my lifetime will require a fundamental change in direction for the education sector across the board - primary schools, high schools and universities.

Its time for the next Australian government to reverse the Indonesian language disaster on our shores. After all, the “Asian Century” really should be the time to start learning an Asian language.

Australia struggles for clarity on the South China Sea

USS Ronald Reagan leads Carrier Strike Group Five and Expeditionary Strike Group Seven ships in an exercise in 2016. (Photo: US Navy/Creative Commons)
USS Ronald Reagan leads Carrier Strike Group Five and Expeditionary Strike Group Seven ships in an exercise in 2016. (Photo: US Navy/Creative Commons)
Published 14 May 2019 06:00   0 Comments

The Lowy Institute’s Richard McGregor has noted the absence of China discussion in Australia’s current election campaign, a state of affairs which prompted his colleague Sam Roggeveen to observe that “Bipartisanship on China is becoming a form of collusion”. Given that the Coalition seems to have decided against participating in a debate on foreign affairs, it is unlikely that the Australian electorate will learn anything more prior to Saturday 18 May when the polls open.

However, this is not to say that the Coalition and Labor have identical policies on, or approaches towards, relations with the People’s Republic of China. One crucial aspect of this is Australia’s response to China’s expansion and coercion in the South China Sea. In mid-2016 the former Shadow Defence Minister, Stephen Conroy, said that Australia would have “failed the test” if it did not stand up to Chinese “bullying” in the South China Sea. He advocated authorising the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) to conduct a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed features there. In October 2016, the current Shadow Defence Minister – Conroy’s successor, Richard Marles – echoed this suggestion, saying that the RAN should be “fully authorised” to conduct such FONOPs. 

On the eve of a national election, Labor lacks a clear policy on the possible use of Australian military force in an operation directed against ambiguous territorial claims made by the People’s Republic of China.

The then-foreign minister, Julie Bishop, was quick to criticise Labor’s pro-FONOP position in the House of Representatives. She claimed that Marles had “decided that Australia should escalate tensions” by conducting FONOPs, “something that Australia has not ever done before”.  Bishop implicitly – but clearly – suggested that the Coalition’s policy was not to conduct such FONOPs: Canberra instead should “be seeking to de-escalate tensions … Australia should not take sides, and we should continue to urge … peaceful negotiations”. This is not a formal Coalition policy but given Bishop’s words and the fact that Australia has not yet conducted a FONOP, any decision to do so would be a departure from the status quo. Under these circumstances, it is fair to say that the Coalition has an implicit, but reasonably clear, policy of not conducting FONOPs. 

I have not found any record of Marles’ 2016 comments having ever been retracted, corrected or disavowed. But he has sought to clarify his remarks, in a way. According to a report of a recent interview, he “would not be drawn on whether the Shorten government would authorise the navy to conduct a freedom of navigation patrol within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands claimed by China”. In a separate interview, when directly asked about FONOPs he has said that it is “not really possible to answer question from … Opposition”. This is directly at odds with his 2016 endorsement of such operations. 

So for those trying to parse out the differences between the two parties, this is where we stand: the Coalition with an implicit, but reasonably clear, policy of not conducting FONOPs. On the Labor side, we have contrary claims: strong endorsement of FONOPs in 2016, but a more recent statement that such policies cannot be decided while in Opposition.

This is a sad state of affairs. On the eve of a national election, Labor lacks a clear policy on the possible use of Australian military force in an operation directed against ambiguous territorial claims made by the PRC. Having advocated such an operation in 2016, the Shadow Defence Minister now equivocates and hedges. What is the voting public meant to make of this? Those who oppose Australian FONOPs under current conditions, like I do, might worry about Labor’s ambivalence. 

The Coalition policy is unannounced, informal and implicit, but at least it is discernible and reasonably clear. If Marles’ 2016 comments remain accurate, and if the ALP does intend to order FONOPs if it wins government, then not disclosing this to voters would be a shameful act. I rarely agree with The Australian newspaper’s Greg Sheridan, but his humorous assessment of 2016 still rings true today: “On the South China Sea, Labor has neither the courage to be a lion nor the reverse courage to be a mouse; instead, it looks like a donkey, braying indecipherably”. Marles talks about having the “courage to assert our national interest when we find ourselves in a position of difference to China”. Before it worries about mustering the courage to order a FONOP, the ALP should have the courage to level with the Australian public about its policy intentions. 

One final point is worth noting. Although I am critical of the ALP, the Coalition has not covered itself in glory here, either. If it is happy to lambast the ALP for advocating FONOPs, then it should be willing to acknowledge, formalise and defend its own policy of not conducting them. Australia would be well-served by both sides of politics treating these questions as substantive and critical issues, rather than merely as opportunities to score points against domestic political opponents.   

Charting 50 years of turning tides in Australian politics

A new Labor cycle appears to be under way when looking back across the decades
A new Labor cycle appears to be under way when looking back across the decades
Published 13 May 2019 06:00   0 Comments

Australians will choose a new national government on 18 May in the context of two underlying trends: a record number of independents already now in office across the country and a political cycle that points to a Labor victory.

The below chart of elected members of parliament across the national, state and territory legislatures shows how the country has had a relatively clear cycle of political change over the past five decades. At the same time, it shows that there are now more than 100 independent or minor party representatives in those legislatures, which is record for the modern post-Second World War party system, and also arguably a record since nationhood a century ago.

Foreign observers of the election are likely to associate any change from the incumbent centre-right Liberal-National Party coalition government to Labor (as the opinion polls suggest) as a change in the national zeitgeist. That is not surprising since the national government controls foreign, defence, trade and immigration policy.

The Australian political cycle begins at the state level and then only flows through to the national level several years later at its more mature point.

But the chart shows that the Australian political cycle begins at the state level and then only flows through to the national level several years later at its more mature point. These cycles appear to be relatively independent of the economy as Australia has not had a recession for 27 years.

In the apparent new Labor cycle the number of Labor legislature members nationwide overtook the Coalition two years ago at the West Australian state election. But the Labor tally has been rising steadily for more than four years since the Victorian election in November 2014.

The shape of the last conservative cycle (2008–2017 coinciding with the leadership of prime minister Tony Abbott) lends support to the widely held view that Australian politics is becoming more intense and volatile due to factors that are found across the world, such as declining voter loyalty and the rise of digital media.

At their peak the Coalition parties held a greater share of seats nationally than during the previous conservative cycle associated with the leadership of prime minister John Howard, who is generally seen as the coalition’s most successful leader in recent times. But the Abbott cycle lasted less than nine years compared with an average of about 13 years for the last four cycles.

As a new Labor cycle appears to be under way it is interesting to note that the last two Labor cycles (associated with prime ministers Bob Hawke in the 1980s and Kevin Rudd in the 2000s) lasted longer than neighbouring conservative cycles. But the conservatives held a greater proportion of seats across the country at their respective peak, potentially making them more politically powerful.

The rise in independent or minor party legislature members passed the symbolic 100 point as a result of strong support for non-major party candidates at recent state election in Australia’s most populated state, New South Wales. But it was underpinned by minor party success at the recent Victorian state election and some losses by the federal Liberal party at the national level due to resignations and by-elections.

That independents or minor parties have crossed the 100 threshold will alarm the political establishment (Photo: James D. Morgan/Getty)

This new record reflects longer term trends including the rise of the Greens party, the success of moderate independents in normally safe conservative seats, and a flurry of small right-of-center parties such as One Nation and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. Analysts are split over whether the current election will see a return to two party polarisation, due to some sharp policy differences between the Labor and conservative parties or more minor party strength.

Nevertheless, the revelation that the independents or minor parties have crossed the 100 threshold will only add to alarm in the political establishment about difficulty assembling the majority governments, which have been the norm in the country’s traditional two-party system. Yet while non-major parties have won as much as a third of the primary vote overall at some recent elections, their share of seats is still much lower due to the way the electoral system works. Although they now hold a record number of seats across the country at 108, this is only 13% of the seats.

Australia has had two notable periods of previous non-major party success: the centrist Australian Democrats in the 1990s and the conservative and Catholic Democratic Labor Party in the 1960s. But they were largely contained to upper houses of Parliament, whereas independents and minor parties are now winning seats in lower houses where governments are formed, which means they can exert more power or simply disrupt government policy.

In an example of the rising concern, my Lowy Institute colleague Sam Roggeveen recently tweeted that this fracturing of the two party system has implications for Australia’s place in Asia.

The independents and minor parties do tend to have common views on some foreign policy issues, such as scepticism towards trade liberalisation and dislike for traditional realist foreign policy towards major neighbours, including China and Indonesia. However, on some specific controversial Asian policy issues such as capital punishment for drug traffickers, immigration and acceptance of refugees, the left and right-wing minor parties mostly tend to cancel each other out. This provides governments with more room to move on these Asia-related foreign policy issues.

The fracturing of the Australian electorate away from the major parties and the shortening of the political cycle are likely to make government more challenging, but it is nevertheless worth viewing this through an Asian prism.

Recent elections in Malaysia and Thailand have resulted in unwieldy multi-party governments, and India looks like sliding back that way in the current election. The Indonesian election has reduced the number of recognised parties, but a multi-party government will still be needed to pass legislation. And even in Japan the long-running conservative Liberal Democratic Party has to pay heed to the centrist foreign policy views of its Komeito coalition partner. Australia is far from alone.

What the world thinks is at stake in Australia’s election campaign

Hmm, what’s all this about then? (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty)
Hmm, what’s all this about then? (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty)
Published 8 May 2019 06:00   0 Comments

Former prime minister Paul Keating pinched a moment in the international spotlight this week after calling for a clean out of “nutters” in Australia’s intelligence agencies. But this off-script detour aside, Australia’s election hasn’t exactly captivated the attention of the rest of the world. Of the international coverage across the campaign’s first few weeks, the best headline still belongs to the Wall Street Journal on the opening day, with a declaration that “Australia to Pick Its Next Leader ­– With an Election”.

The prospect of yet another change of prime minister, the sixth Australia leader installed inside eight years, is bound to be the starting point for any of the world’s media that does cast a glance this way. Even so, Australian politics is never going to compete with the daily technicolour circus that is the Trump White House or the royal baby highs of Brexit Britain.

It is always fascinating to see what attention Australia does receive, and not only from fickle news rooms.

Still, it is always fascinating to see what attention Australia does receive, and not only from fickle news rooms but also on social media and other commentary platforms, as a way of judging whether people from other nations see a stake in the outcome.

For an overseas perspective of whether Australia’s election much matters, I asked the view of four contributors to The Interpreter in countries ranging from near neighbours to more distant friends. Given the close attention Australians have paid New Zealand in recent months, from Jacinda Ardern’s compassionate leadership following the Christchurch massacre to happier news of her impending nuptials, it seems only fair to start across the ditch, with David Capie, Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

No relationship matters more to New Zealand and New Zealanders than the one with Australia, but if you think that means the New Zealand public pays close attention to Australian politics, you’d be sadly mistaken. In fact, for most of the electoral cycle Australian domestic politics is almost striking in its absence from the New Zealand media.

That said, federal elections do focus the mind and this one will be watched more closely than most across the Tasman for at least a couple of reasons.

First, the one issue that has generated political traction in New Zealand is the rights and treatment of Kiwis living in Australia. In particular, the detention and deportation of New Zealanders ­– including those who have no family here and in some cases people who’ve never even been to this country – has generated some public anger and sparked heated comments from government ministers. If Labor wins, there will be hope for a shift in policy and some improvement in conditions.

Second, and related, the Ardern and Morrison governments are hardly natural bedfellows. On a host of issues from climate change to offshore detention to disarmament, there’s a feeling that a Shorten government will be more aligned with New Zealand’s own approach and priorities. That will be welcomed in Wellington. At a time when the region and the world looks like a much more worrying place, a close trans-Tasman relationship is more important than ever.

Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison meet in Auckland in February (Photo: Diego Opatowski via Getty)

Australia has one neighbour even closer than New Zealand ­– Papua New Guinea. And while the hotel habits of local political manoeuvring has transfixed Port Moresby in recent days, lawyer and strategic adviser Watna Mori argues Australia’s federal elections are very important for PNG, and indeed most of the independent Pacific Islands.

Whether the average Papua New Guinean is aware of that is another matter.

I believe PNG Twitter provides a snapshot of the views of the small proportion of Papua New Guineans who are interested in the Australian elections or Australian politics in general. Twitter has proved to be a great platform for Papua New Guineans and Pacific islanders to engage in critical conversation (of 280 characters or less) about our identity in the region and our relationships with each other. This also extends to relations with Australia and New Zealand but increasingly also with China and Taiwan. Although it is by no means representation of an average Papua New Guinean or even an average news exposed Papua New Guinean, as PNG Twitter consists of largely Port Moresby or Australian based Papua New Guineans with an impression of a globalised world.

A large number of PNG “tweeps” are aware of the Australian elections and have expressed opinions on it. Overwhelmingly, I would hasten to say, against the Liberal-National government, especially with the likes of Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton at its head. As recently decolonised people, indigenous people and for many, migrants in Australia, the Liberal-Nationals views on immigration and ethnic minorities strike a personal discord with Papua New Guineans. Their views on climate change – recently highlighted by the alleged insulting comments of the Environment Minister Melissa Price to Kiribati’s former president Anote Tong ­– are also of increasing concern to Papua New Guineans online. So too the Liberal-National’s implicit support of some of the practices of the O’Neill government as was evident in the recent Paladin contract scandal.

Beyond our pre-occupation with surviving, however, most Papua New Guineans and Pacific Islanders, do not identify Australia as a Pacific nation and this has much to do with Australia’s attitude towards PNG and the Pacific. Australia itself does not identify with us as having a shared history or culture or people, looking towards Europe for a shared identity when indigenous Australians and New Guineans have been trading for thousands of years before European arrival. Australia has long seen the Pacific and PNG as a burden and a security obligation with the exception of the mostly tokenistic “Kokoda spirit”. As such, most Australians do not know about PNG and PNG politics or Pacific politics either.

Mori is hopeful this longstanding malaise can change, as Australia continues its “step up” to prioritise the Pacific, including major projects with PNG for an undersea communications cable and electrification.

The hashtags are many (Photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty)

But it is another story altogether with another neighbour, Indonesia. Having just gone through a ginormous election campaign of its own in recent months – see the Lowy Institute’s interactive graphic for the extraordinary details ­– there is little appetite for more election news bubbling up from down south. In fact, journalist Febrina Firdaus believes Indonesians pay scant attention to Australia’s election at all, “except if we are living, working, or studying in Australia.”

It is because Indonesians and Australians are not politically connected. But I do believe Indonesians are aware about the election schedule and the result. But not more than that.

Perhaps it is because both Indonesia and Australia rarely share any stories about elections, more about tourism. When we talk about the relationship between Indonesia and Australia, we always end up talking about Bali, for example.

Then it comes to refugees. As you know, Indonesia is a transit country and often in the past refugees have entered Australia with the help of Indonesians. That usually becomes the headline to connect both countries. It leaves Indonesians feeling that Australian politics is not really significant to them, even though, for the Indonesian government, Australia is important as a strategic neighbour ­– as important as Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Surprisingly, Indonesians are now is more aware with what happens in New Zealand after the shooting attack. I think the Islamophobia issue is connected to both countries.

I think the other topic that is generally related with Australia within Indonesia is how the country looks at the problem in West Papua. The Australia and New Zealand media are really helpful by covering West Papua stories. There are so many supporters of West Papua in Australia, but I’m not sure the government really represents them at all. Instead, the Australian and Indonesia governments are the best allies when it comes to the issue. I am always curious why.

Bill Shorten and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo speak during the G20 summit in 2014 (Photo: G20 Australia 2014/Flickr)

Turn then for a view from further afield. The old bonds of Empire are in the past for Pakistan, India and Australia, even though, as journalist and researcher Adnan Aamir points out, occasionally the countries do share a common field.

Everyday Pakistanis know Australia only because of cricket. They know Australia for having fast bowlers and batsmen who are not easy to be defeated. They know that Australia is located far away because test matches played in Australia start very early in the morning for Pakistani viewers.

But most Pakistanis are not even aware of the fact that Australia is currently having an active election campaign.

Elections in Australia are not discussed on media and there is not even any reference to election campaigns in newspapers and TV channels. Pakistanis are interested in the elections in the United States, United Kingdom and India, but Australian elections are nowhere.

Immigration is a point of interest. Australia is one of the most sought-after immigration destinations for Pakistanis. The outcome of this election will have bearing for the immigration seeking Pakistani, as the Liberal-National coalition wants to reduce immigration whereas there is a perception the Labor party wants to increase it. But only a handful of researchers and analysts are studying the potential impact of Australian elections on Pakistan.

As far as India is concerned, it’s busy with its own elections and there is even less interest in who will win the polls in Australia. Just like Pakistan, a lot of Indians immigrate to Australia. In fact, Indians are the largest source of immigration to Australia, so the outcome of Australian elections can also affect India. However, like their neighbours in Pakistan, neither everyday people nor the hyperactive Indian media are following what’s going on in Australia.

Four views, different issues, united by a common thread of benign disinterest. Perhaps this sample exercise of the outside looking in really does prove the old saying, that all politics is local.


Cricket connection: Australia, India and Pakistan (Photo: Yawar Nazir/Getty)

After the Australian election: the China test

Penny Wong and Bill Shorten meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in March 2017. (Photo: Lucas Coch/Getty)
Penny Wong and Bill Shorten meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in March 2017. (Photo: Lucas Coch/Getty)
Published 7 May 2019 11:30   0 Comments

Governments in Australia are judged, in part, by their handling of the relationship with China. And while foreign policy has barely featured in Australia’s election campaign, the Chinese government is watching our election with interest and intent.

An early release of this year’s Lowy Institute poll results shows that Labor is now marginally preferred to manage relations with China, with 47% of Australians choosing Labor compared to 44% for the Coalition. This may suggest tensions in the bilateral relationship over the past few years have been noticed by voters. Prior to the 2016 election, 47% of Australians thought the Coalition would do a better job, compared with 35% for Labor.

If there is a new government, the Chinese government will see an opportunity to reopen done deals and press for new concessions.

Whoever forms government after 18 May will be tested by China. If the three-year trend of national opinion polls is right and Bill Shorten becomes Prime Minister, the Chinese government will see an opportunity to reopen done deals and press for new concessions.

A new government could face challenges in dealings with critical partners and allies such as Indonesia, Japan, India and the United States. But these countries are far less likely to unleash state media every time their government is criticised in Australia. The idea of Indian officials instructing its diaspora how to vote in an Australian election sounds implausible, for example. And yet when Labor blocked the ratification of a bilateral extradition treaty with China, it was reported that senior Communist Party officials threatened to tell the Chinese community in Australia that Labor did not support the bilateral relationship.

There are already reports that Chinese officials intend to hold up coal from Australia until after the election. The sources for this report are vague at best, but China’s slowdown on Australian coal has already allowed other competitors that are seen as more friendly to China take some of our market share.

What might China ask a new Labor government for, in exchange for a resumption in normal coal trade?

A review of the current Australian government decision to ban Huawei from its 5G network would be at the top of the list. China is looking to isolate Australia in its decision to ban Huawei. It will be pleased by the recent United Kingdom decision to allow Huawei to build non-core parts of its 5G network.

As much as Beijing might hope to relitigate this decision with a new Labor government, it seems unlikely to happen. For its part, Labor would have been pleased that this decision was made prior to the election. It has generally been aligned with the Coalition on China policy and security issues. The foreign interference legislation, for example, was passed with bipartisan support.

A new Labor government would be looking to highlight positives in the relationship. Bill Shorten has already signaled that Labor’s policy would not preemptively frame China as a strategic threat, which is code for having an independent policy from the United States.

And while China likely won’t be able to reverse the Huawei decision, it may expect more traction on its signature Belt and Road initiative. The Coalition has been hesitant to engage with the Belt and Road. But the likely incoming Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, has said Australia has risked missing out on opportunities by equivocating on the Belt and Road.

Australian media barely noticed that Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson was in Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum last week, and gave a speech highlighting Australia’s intention to engage further with the Belt and Road. But Chinese state media was paying attention.

Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong speaking at the Lowy Institute on 1 May. 

Penny Wong did not revisit her views on the Belt and Road at her 1 May Lowy Institute address. She emphasised that Labor would be disciplined and consistent in managing Australia’s relationship with China. Labor may have been in lockstep with Coalition on policy issues, but Labor has criticised what it calls disjointed and provocative megaphone diplomacy from the Coalition.

But if it wins office, Labor may not find it a simple task to deliver a consistent China policy. Internal debates about whether Australia should conduct freedom of navigation issues in the South China Sea have been made public and reveal some space between the shadow foreign and defence ministers.

The 2019 Lowy poll results suggest the Coalition may have been blamed for the downturn in bilateral relations, but it is unclear if Labor could have handled challenges presented by Beijing any differently. The Chinese government is likely aware that it can stoke tensions in Australia, and the Australian government of the day tends to be blamed. Much of the business community is already wary of Shorten, and a further deterioration in bilateral relations with China would only add to their skepticism.

Penny Wong said values would dictate her foreign policy – this is an easy position to take in Opposition. But this Labor government would not repeat the mistakes of Kevin Rudd, who overestimated his ability to withstand the pressure that came from being frank about the appalling human rights situation in China. Wong is on record expressing “deep concern” over the internment of over a million Uighurs in Xinjiang, but in stark contrast to Labor of the past, says the Coalition response has been appropriate.

A new Labor government’s response to pressure from the Chinese government would be an early test. Shorten and Wong may have acknowledged that difficult decisions are ahead. But it remains to be seen if they can sell these difficult decisions to the Australian public.

Trafficking in old anxieties

Photo: NASA Visible Earth
Photo: NASA Visible Earth
Published 1 May 2019 15:00   0 Comments

Are the boats back? Once again a reliable fear of “uncontrolled” immigration has been invoked in an Australian federal election. This time current Prime Minister Scott Morrison has framed “border control” as a question of “congestion-busting” in major cities – and instead of the usual hard line on asylum seekers, at the weekend he has announced a cap on the entire humanitarian program.

The wording might be new, but this is an old take on an old theme, and one that continues to perpetuate long-standing myths about people who seek protection from persecution.

Control of immigration was a founding principle at Australia’s federation in 1901, and it has been at the forefront of Australian politics since 2001.

As a former hard-line Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Morrison was widely expected to politicise refugees in the 2019 election. He had previously issued unsubstantiated warnings about potential “rapists” and “murderers” entering Australia as asylum seekers. But after Muslim worshippers were murdered by an Australian man in Christchurch on 15 March this year, the Prime Minister was forced to mute his talk of “evil”, and Australia’s national debate on immigration was subjected to well-deserved public scrutiny.

Now, more than three weeks into a fiercely contested 2019 campaign, Morrison’s move to freeze Australia’s annual humanitarian program at 18,750 is a tentative return to form. Standing alongside former Liberal prime minister John Howard, Morrison claimed Australia’s borders and budget were “under control”. Most tellingly, he echoed his predecessor’s election-winning insistence that Australia would “decide” who enters its territory.

This is a familiar phrase. Control of immigration was a founding principle at Australia’s federation in 1901, and it has been at the forefront of Australian politics since 2001, when Howard prevented Captain Arne Rinnan of the MV Tampa from disembarking 438 men, women and children his ship had rescued from drowning in the Indian Ocean. Howard won re-election. Rinnan and his crew won the Nansen medal, the UN refugee agency’s highest honour. The “Tampa affair”, as it became known, led to the beginning of offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, building on the system of mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat that was first introduced by the Keating Labor government in the early 1990s.

Norwegian cargo ship MV Tampa moored off Chritmas Island in 2001 with rescued asylum seekers aboard (Photo: AFP via Getty)

By linking the border with the budget, Morrison has called on public anxieties that pre-date 2001. Long before Howard framed control of entry as a question of national security, voters voiced concern for the economic and demographic impacts of immigration. When Vietnamese asylum seekers first risked the boat journey to Australia in the late 1970s, one talkback radio listener dialled in to ask, what would happen when the refugees who settled in Australia “multiply in the future?”.

Studies in recent years have shown that voters worry about refugees competing with locals for jobs, housing or social services – the exact fears that the Morrison government has sought to tap into both before and after Christchurch. Back in February, both Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton warned that if refugees and asylum seekers were brought to Australia from Nauru for critical medical treatment, they would “displace” Australians from local health services.

Australia’s hard-line approach to “border control” has reinforced negative public perceptions of people who cross borders – and oceans – in search of protection. Qualitative studies have found that respondents usually have little to no understanding that it is legal to seek asylum, and are likely to believe that asylum seekers must be attempting to enter Australian territory without a valid visa for the wrong reasons. Furthermore, those perceptions of criminality are strengthened by Australia’s policy of placing asylum seekers who arrive by boat into immigration detention.

Most persistent is the myth that Australia risks being “flooded” by refugees. In fact, even when Australia received just over 20,000 asylum seekers by boat in 2013, this was just 1.7% of the world’s asylum seekers in that year, and amounted to a fraction of one per cent of the national population. When Morrison claimed that Australia would still boast one of the world’s most generous humanitarian programs, even with a freeze on the numbers, he was overlooking the fact that many other countries host thousands – millions – more refugees and asylum seekers than Australia does. Or that the humanitarian program accounts for only about 10% of Australia’s migration intake each year now (compared to 48% in 1949–50).

The politics of “border control” is at odds with Australia’s successful record of humanitarian resettlement, and the good-faith commitment the country has made as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol to protect people fleeing persecution.

Most concerning is the terrible human cost of Australia’s current approach to asylum policy. Talk of “border control” masks the serious impact of detention and offshore processing on the people concerned. There are now about 915 people held on Nauru and Manus Island, and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has expressed grave concern for the mental health of those remaining on these islands. Another 953 children, women and men are in Australia for medical treatment, living with the risk that they may be sent back offshore.

A man who previously oversaw these offshore conditions as minister, and who displays a trophy of a boat inscribed with “I stopped these”, is now the Prime Minister trailing in the polls. No matter how talk of “border control” is framed (busy roads rather than boat traffic, this time), the reliable politics of immigration has come into play ahead of the poll on 18 May.

A bugle for bigotry: does hate speech in Australia resonate in Asia?

Hate speech and the language of violence is increasingly seen as more a global phenomenon (Photo: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake via Getty)
Hate speech and the language of violence is increasingly seen as more a global phenomenon (Photo: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake via Getty)
Published 1 May 2019 13:00   0 Comments

Racism and hate speech have certainly been much discussed in Australia and the area seems to have become a grey area for many politicians who see it as too prominent and entrenched to openly oppose. These trendlines bump against real issues of free speech at one end, and the bizarrely invoked “right to be white” argument at the other, as well as indicating a racist underbelly that Australia has not only failed to eviscerate, but has actually institutionalised over two centuries.

Inevitably, as the current federal election slumps towards 18 May, racist ginger groups, haters and supremacist nutters will find ways to edge into the headlines as the campaign wearies. They will capitalise on news editors seeking copy beyond eye glazing tax black holes, utes and health policy, and racism will likely, once again, raise its ugly head as a federal election issue.

But, what will our Southeast Asian neighbours make of it?

Evidence suggests that people in Asia, while bemused perhaps, don’t pay a lot of serious attention to our racist rants here in Australia.

Despite spikes in coverage in the region of such events as the Cronulla race riots, hotspots in refugee policy and dot points in the rise, fall and rise of Pauline Hanson, evidence suggests that people in Asia, while bemused perhaps, don’t pay a lot of serious attention to our racist rants here in Australia.  

While our Asian neighbours roll their eyes but do little more, political leaders here have diluted their misgivings about hate speech here.

If we take Pauline Hanson’s political career as a micro-trend in itself, we can see that little is being done politically to halt her style of diatribe in the interests of any Southeast Asian concerns. If we bookend two of her most well-known statements across 20 or so years, we can see that Australian leaders have, if anything, pulled back on censorship of this kind of racist hate speech.

In her infamous anti-Asian immigration maiden speech when elected in 1996, Hanson argued that “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians”, and that “they have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate”. Condemnation was swift and severe, and Hanson and her message were roundly attacked, particularly in its negative impact across Asia.

Jeff Kennett, premier in the state of Victoria at the time, vowed to “dispel the anti-Asian image” generated in Hanson’s wake.

Queensland senator Pauline Hanson fending off questions about her party’s actions (Photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty)

By 2016 and her “second” maiden speech when re-elected as a Queensland senator, Hanson’s openly bigoted, racist and generally error-ridden rhetoric was seemingly more palatable, at least in terms of any effects north of Darwin. So ordinary was this view, criticism was comparatively limited.

By 2018, Hanson was mainstream enough to distance herself from Fraser Anning’s own outrageously twisted and irresponsible anti-Muslim maiden speech which in many ways mirrored her own of some two decades before.

Labor’s Senator Penny Wong picked up on this distinction during a speech at Melbourne University in March. Wong said:

the political and electoral isolation imposed on Pauline Hanson and One Nation in its earlier incarnation were all achieved with bipartisan support. I fear we have done less well this last decade or more.

But, her central point was that hate speech and racist language and culture was mostly damaging to our own democratic society, rather than a concern for our relations globally.

The reasons for the relative lack of Asian concern vary.

The fact that most Asian countries cannot point to the absence of hate speech and discrimination in their own societies is perhaps one of them. Indeed, such is the prevalence of intolerance and extremism across some areas of the region, many Asians and their leaders are understandably worrying more about localised hate speech and less about ours.

Further, Australia’s history has meant that racism fouling the air here may have less impact because Asian expectations on our racial views have been set so low.

Finally, hate speech and the language of violence is increasingly seen as more a global phenomenon, not something that can be framed in national borders. Social media, through giants like Facebook, un-edited and multinational, has become a bugle for bigotry.

The agreement between the governments of Australia and Singapore, confirmed in March, to explore co-operation in the cyber world in relation to hate speech and verbal terrorism is one recent confirmation that the global landscape is widely acknowledged as the source of hate speech. A more international approach is being pushed to be part of the agenda for the G20 Summit in Osaka in June.

However, where our racist hate speech may have limited play in Asia, Australia’s anti-gay hate speech seems more relevant for Asians. News of Australian rugby international Israel Folau’s homophobic rants hit English language press headlines not only in rugby loving Hong Kong, but in countries such as Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. That none of the latter are “rugby countries” suggests it is the LGBTQI rights angle that is of interest.

If hate speech is an election issue for its foreign affairs impact, then Australia’s rainbow status, less than its historic racism, may well be the factor Australian voters will need to consider.

Adapting to climate change: the priority for Australia

The clean up following the Townsville floods in February (Photo: Ian Hitchcock/Getty)
The clean up following the Townsville floods in February (Photo: Ian Hitchcock/Getty)
Published 30 Apr 2019 13:00   0 Comments

Adaptation to climate change was for a long time considered as an abstract issue for the future, something that would need to be worked out later by someone else. Adaptation, in short, is a process of preparing to live with a changing climate where most of our definitions of typical weather and climatic trends are no longer valid. In Australia in particular we have no shortage of experiences with extreme events, whether that is flooding, heatwaves and drought, and we have developed a range of strategies to deal with these when they occur.

Adaptation, in short, is a process of preparing to live with a changing climate where most of our definitions of typical weather and climatic trends are no longer valid.

Yet, in a world where the climate will continue changing and the “new normal” is likely to be mostly characterised by constant change, we need strategies and management practices in place that reduce harm to our livelihoods and ways of living. Fire seasons, for example, are shifting within the states of Australia, becoming longer and more devastating. Flooding and rainfall events are also increasing, causing widespread damage, such as the recent Townsville floods.

The question is how we make decisions in adapting to such events.

Australia was for a long time a forerunner in climate adaptation globally: we made large-scale investments in developing better and more robust knowledge via the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility through a range of research projects, programs, and plans. At the same time, big investments were made in research, training and capacity building to make sure that we had the best researchers who truly understood adaptation.

Today, however, most of these investments have decreased at the national level, with some making the case that Australia is now well-adapted and that we do not even need basic research into climate change anymore. Both of these arguments are faulty.

Firstly, Australia has only started to grasp the beginnings of what successful and effective climate adaptation looks like, and the kinds of policies and strategies that are needed to support different sectors and communities. The road to learning has only just begun.

Secondly, given how complex the global climate system is, we also need to support basic science. For example, in Antarctica, where Australia has a special vantage point, we need the best available research to feed into such reports as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Building this research capacity nationally is an investment that will give Australia an edge in building better and more realistic policies, as well as understanding the speed and scale of climate change. This knowledge is also crucial for robust climate adaptation.

The aftermath of bushfires in Tathra, NSW, 2018 (Photo: via Flickr)

The policy landscape for adaptation is especially complex. It has been argued that adaptation is a mainly local issue and the responsibility of local governments and communities. However, although the implementation of adaptation activities happens locally, it is best understood as a process of decision-making that involves all levels of government and also the informal and traditional governance structures. Adaptation is a process where investments are being made across local, provincial, state, national and international levels, with the hope of helping to increase overall resilience and adaptability of those systems, along with the livelihoods that people depend upon.

The case for climate action is now more urgent than ever, in both reducing greenhouse gases and also preparing our communities in adapting to change, and the majority of Australians support strong climate action. Yet adaptation is going to have to occur no matter what, given the massive changes already locked in to the climate system. We still need to keep a close eye on emerging trends in these changing conditions, to identify when we have moved to a new normal, where different kinds of actions are warranted.

At Griffith University, we have heavily invested in getting adaptation science on the national and global agenda. We host the National Climate Change Adaptation Facility and also have invested in the Griffith Climate Change Response Program as an Area of Strategic Interest, even during times when politically climate change has been deemed too difficult of an issue. In March this year, we also launched the Adaptation Science Research Theme at Cities Research Institute, which seeks to identify and support emerging leaders who are doing meaningful research on climate adaptation.

All of this work supports the development of a more robust climate adaptation science agenda, one that is of practical relevance to the decision- and policy-makers, communities, and the private sector that are all developing their own strategies and understanding of climate adaptation.

Whichever government comes into power following the election, adaptation should be at the core of their policies. Under the Paris Agreement, each signatory country, including Australia, has committed to produce a national adaptation plan that maps out its key strategies and policies for how to adapt to climate change. But this plan also should indicate as part of the global stocktake how Australia is progressing in adaptation, and report also on implementation, not just a policy direction.

At the national level, we need a more consistent approach to adaptation. Establishing, for example, a National Adaptation Taskforce or Committee, similar to many that have been set up in European countries such as the United Kingdom and Finland, could provide advice on where adaptation finance is most urgently needed. It could become a body for identifying adaptation innovations that can be scaled up across the country leading to real improvements, while also assisting in the drafting of the national adaptation plan as required under the Paris Agreement. We need to put the investments in adaptation to good use and become again a global leader in enabling successful adaptation.

A well-adapted resilient Australia is possible but only if we take climate change seriously and make the necessary investments.

An Australian accent abroad? Foreign policy under a Shorten government

Shorten on the campaign trail, 18 April 2019. One clear difference between the parties will be on climate diplomacy. (Photo: Stefan Postles/Getty)
Shorten on the campaign trail, 18 April 2019. One clear difference between the parties will be on climate diplomacy. (Photo: Stefan Postles/Getty)
Published 26 Apr 2019 11:00   0 Comments

When I was challenged by The Interpreter to think about the worldview of the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in June 2016, it was tempting to use US analogies. I argued Shorten was far more like Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton; embedded in a domestic agenda stressing fairness and redress for economic and social inequality. (Ah, the past is a foreign country...) 

Like Sanders, who is running again for the US Presidency in 2020, Shorten makes no apologies for his domestic focus. While this may seem like a failing in a potential leader of the free world, it is a lesser vice in a potential leader of Australia.

Shorten follows his Labor predecessors Julia Gillard and Bob Hawke in this domestic focus. Kevin Rudd was more the anomaly than the rule for Labor leaders with his international interests and diplomatic background. For the 2019 election Labor is campaigning on fairness but no policies are squarely in the realm of traditional foreign policy.

The ALP will appoint a Global Human Rights Ambassador, who will have responsibility for the advancement of disability, LGBTIQ, ethnic and religious minority and other human rights, and it supports the Magnitsky Sanctions Bill.

Conventional wisdom has it that Australians tend not to vote with an eye to foreign policy issues anyway, despite the 2006 Lowy Poll finding that 82% of respondents thought “it will be best for the future of Australia's if we take an active part in world affairs”. In the 2018 Lowy Poll, only 17% of Australians said they are “satisfied with the way things are going in the world today”, while 78% are dissatisfied. 

One explanation for why Australian political leaders tend not to cultivate much foreign policy expertise is that there is just not that much difference in foreign policy between the two parties. In my view this is a good thing, and a bipartisan approach should be encouraged.

The Labor party’s National Policy Platform reflects generally the trends identified by the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper: “The current global context is one characterised by disruption – one in which the magnitude and nature of change influences Australia’s strategic, economic and foreign policy interests.”

What differences there are in foreign policy stem from a difference in foundations, as former Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek phrased it in her 2016 address to the Lowy Institute. Labor emphasises Australia's good international citizenship with a multilateral approach, while the Coalition has emphasised bilateral relationships and priority on trade agendas.

However, in the eyes of voters reading scant reportage and discussion of foreign policy issues, this difference in emphasis and the consequent differences in policy may not always be apparent.

Shorten is certainly interested in transnational issues and the process of globalisation as it disrupts the lives of middle-class and working-class Australians. As he said at the Lowy Institute in 2018: “John Curtin and Ben Chifley...understood the connection between the lives of working Australians and the corridors of international diplomacy.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten on a visit to Australian troops in Afghanistan in April 2018. (Photo: Australian Defence Force)

One of Shorten's "100 positive policies" in the last election was to crack down on tax avoidance by multinational corporations, an issue that would require international cooperation through initiatives like the OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting project. The ALP 2019 election platform states as a key pillar: “Make multinationals and millionaires pay their fair share”. 

This focus is also clearly present in the trade portfolio, which receives the most detailed treatment in the National Policy Platform. This is despite ALP weakness in Opposition in seeking accountability on human rights standards through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and various FTA negotiations. Shorten is clearly influenced by transnational labour movements in relation to labour provisions in trade agreements like the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (CHAFTA), and will seek to dismantle investor-state dispute settlement clauses if he wins office.

One clear difference between the ALP and the Coalition in 2019 will be on climate diplomacy. Shorten spoke at the Lowy Institute in 2015 on the topic of international action on climate change. The National Policy Platform also contains a detailed chapter on environmental diplomacy. Nonetheless, the ALP has walked both sides of the street on the Adani coal mine issue.

Clear differences with the Coalition in the foreign policy portfolio include:

  • The ALP will appoint a Global Human Rights Ambassador with responsibility for the advancement and protection of disability, LGBTIQ, ethnic and religious minority and other human rights, and supports the passage of the International Human Rights and Corruption (Magnitsky Sanctions) Bill.
  • The ALP will ensure parliamentary consideration of Australian defence involvement in armed conflict during the 46th Parliament.
  • The ALP will reconstitute the role of Minister for Pacific Affairs and International Development.

The ALP will also pursue the recognition of Palestine, sign the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and an increase to foreign aid, but final decisions will be left for cabinet under an agreement struck between the party's factions at last year’s National Conference. This means an elected Labor Cabinet would have final say on these issues, making them more aspirational than binding. 

It is in the realm of independence that Bill Shorten's voice is most distinctive. He has stressed that “the foreign policy of the next Labor government will speak with a clear Australian accent”. This "clear Australian accent" relates particularly to more independence from US framing of China's rise. Shorten told an audience at the Lowy Institute last year:

The next Labor government will not deal with China purely through the prism of worst-case assumptions about its long-term ambitions. Pre-emptively framing China as a strategic threat isn’t a sufficient response to its role and increasing influence in our region…We will deal with China on the basis of the actions it takes – and in our own national interests.

This clear accent carves out some policy space with respect to the US, which is unusual for Australia. Shorten famously stated in 2016: “I think Donald Trump’s views are just barking mad on some issues. America’s a great friend of Australia; whoever they dish up we’ll work with, but wow, Trump’s sort of – it’s sort of the ultimate victory of celebrity politics.”

Senator Penny Wong listens to Bill Shorten's October 2018 Lowy Institute speech. (Photo: Lowy Institute) 

In Shorten’s 2018 speech at the Lowy Institute, this position became more nuanced but nonetheless stresses independence:

Australia’s interests will obviously be different from those of the United States in some areas; our national focus is different, our relationships with our close neighbours are different, our economies have different structures. And indeed differences in perspective and opinion are one of the many valuable qualities we bring to our alliance with the United States. The Labor Party opposed the second Iraq war – and in view of the consequences, we were more responsible allies for doing so… We can – and will – express any differences within the enduring framework of our close relationship.

Bill Shorten is also very comfortable that this clear Australian accent comes from senior Cabinet women rather than himself. Senator Penny Wong is a key Cabinet member who chose the foreign affairs portfolio, and on foreign policy Shorten tends to defer to her (as Julia Gillard did to Stephen Smith and Kevin Rudd, and Paul Keating did to Gareth Evans). Senator Wong made a series of thoughtful speeches on foreign policy in 2018, and comes closest to building a doctrine since Rudd and Evans.

This strong female leadership in Australian foreign policy is welcome. The competence of Tanya Plibersek and now Penny Wong as Shadow Foreign Ministers has allowed Shorten to stay in the comfortable space of "globalised homebody", and the Australian polity is none the poorer for it.

There is no doubt, however, that any Australian Prime Minister will have trouble with the international impression that they won't be around long enough to warrant investing in as an international leader. Shorten has been Opposition leader for three Prime Ministers now so he does represent a more stable option. The ALP changed its rules after the Gillard-Rudd upheaval to make it near impossible for Labor to oust its own PM.

Yet outside Canberra, the world does not know Bill Shorten. This is Shorten’s greatest foreign policy challenge: to last a full term and build an international profile. Otherwise that clear Australian accent will not be heard.

Coal comfort: Australia-India ties after the elections

The green light for the Carmichael coal mine was clearly intended to wedge Labor in a key election battleground (Photo: Julian Meehan/Flickr)
The green light for the Carmichael coal mine was clearly intended to wedge Labor in a key election battleground (Photo: Julian Meehan/Flickr)
Published 18 Apr 2019 06:00   0 Comments

In an odd quirk of timing, this year Australia and India’s elections will run in parallel. On 11 April, Scott Morrison made the trip to Canberra’s Government House and the official campaign finally began.

On the same day, Indian voters began to go to the polls in the first of seven phases of voting in that country’s mammoth exercise in democracy. By 19 May, the last day on which votes can be cast – and the day after Australians will go to the polls – up to 900 million Indians will have exercised that right.

Unusually too, India will feature in the Australian campaign. One of the last acts of the Morrison government was to give the federal government’s go ahead for the Adani Group’s controversial Carmichael mine project in the Galilee Basin in Queensland. On 9 April, Environment Minister Melissa Price signed off on Adani’s groundwater management plan, despite doubts expressed by the CSIRO and environmentalists about its claims.

Cheered by members of Liberal National Party, the decision was clearly intended to wedge the Labor Opposition in a key election battleground, and put Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor state government, which has dragged its feet over its own approvals for the project, at odds with some federal colleagues. At the same time, this use of the Adani project as a political football will bring into question once again the commitment of some in Canberra to the bilateral relationship with India.

The two countries have increasingly close defence and security ties, signalled by the recent AUSINDEX naval drill.

Whatever one thinks about the Carmichael mine itself – and, to be clear, I have serious doubts about it – it has caused some friction in Australia-India relations. Some have treated the promised investment as a test of how welcoming Australia is to Indian money. Others observe that Gautam Adani, the founder of the eponymous Group, has long been close to his fellow Gujarati, Narendra Modi, now Prime Minister, but before that Chief Minister of their state.

Whether the fate of the Adani project will harm bilateral ties is a moot point. Indian investment in Australia continues to grow. In 2017, it topped $15.5bn, up from $11.6bn two years earlier. And to be sure, big industrialists have long had considerable clout in New Delhi, and in the early years of Modi’s tenure, Adani had significant influence, especially in foreign economic policy. But since then, the government has tried to pivot away, at least in part, from its pro-business image, towards a more populist one that emphasises support for the poor.

More broadly, even the most seasoned observers think Australia-India relations are better now than they have perhaps ever been. The two countries have increasingly close defence and security ties, signalled, for example, by the recent AUSINDEX naval drill. They are now involved in regular institutionalised dialogues, including the annual Foreign and Defence Minister so-called ‘2+2’s, trilaterals with Japan and the United States, and of course the Quad. Much effort has also gone into trying to restore momentum in the economic relationship, despite the foundering of talks for a free trade deal, with the release last year of Peter Varghese’s weighty and detailed India Economic Strategy, and the promise of an Indian equivalent.

All this said, efforts to turn to the Adani project into even more of a contentious issue than it is already may not be helpful for bilateral ties. Committed as it is to a range of strategic initiatives involving Australia, New Delhi – and the Indian media – now pay much more attention to our fractious, febrile politics than they once did. However the Adani debate is handled over the next few weeks, there will be guaranteed attention from India.

The Adani coal mine has become a focal point of protesters seeking Australian government action on climate change. (Photo: John Englart/Flickr)

The big concern in New Delhi, however, is not Adani, but the attitude of whichever party will form a government in May towards India, China, and the region more broadly. India wants Australia to diversify its trade and security relationships, to resist Chinese pressure, and to deal effectively with alleged political interference by the Chinese Communist Party in our society and both parties. It wants us to see through the commitments made in the Varghese Report, and welcomes the bipartisan support it has been given.

Above all, what New Delhi wants to see is a stable government in Canberra capable of managing relations with key regional powers in a measured way. It wants continuity, and fears sudden changes of direction in foreign, economic, and security policy. The Rudd government, back in the late 2000s, caused palpitations in India with both its grand ambitions and its unpredictability. The present administration, chopping and changing its leaders, and abruptly announcing changes to visas and work rights, directly affecting thousands of Indian citizens, has also generated anxiety. Whoever wins on 18 May should try to do better.

A question of faith: future Coalition foreign policy under Morrison

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking at the National Press Club (Photo: Tracey Nearmy/Getty)
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking at the National Press Club (Photo: Tracey Nearmy/Getty)
Published 17 Apr 2019 06:00   0 Comments

In the darkest days of John Howard’s pre-Lazarus life, before the triple by-pass and successful political resurrection, one of the many ways he was disparaged as being unfit to be prime minister was the argument that he simply did not have the presence or the bearing to represent Australia overseas. That was when cartoonists drew him as a diminished, comical figure, hopeless in every way, including as the potential face of Australia on the global stage.

Morrison’s church is closely linked to the US evangelical Christian movement, in particular to what is known as “prosperity theology”.

Howard, as we now know, proved his critics wrong, becoming a significant international figure. Whether you agreed or not with his foreign policy choices, it had to be acknowledged that once in the job of prime minister and, forced by the realities of Australia’s national political imperatives, Howard took very seriously and enthusiastically his role in international affairs.

Five prime ministers on from Howard, Scott Morrison finds himself in a similar situation, disparaged by critics who argue that he is not up to the job, ridiculed over his personal style and doubted as a leader who could make an impact beyond Australia’s shores.

The advantage that Morrison was given - going into this election as prime minister after more than half a year to stamp his authority on the job – has counted for little in terms of his standing with voters. In international affairs, the issue which appears to have made the biggest domestic impact was his much ridiculed “bear hug” for New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when he greeted her at the Christchurch massacre memorial service. Social media comparisons of Morrison and Ardern have been cruel.

Where Ardern appears to have slipped comfortably into the role of her nation’s leader on the world stage and made a big impact, Morrison has yet to show either flair for, or any significant interest in, international affairs. Morrison’s formative years in government and policy making were in immigration and border protection where the symbolism was of sealing borders and shutting out foreigners.

All this, of course, can be dismissed as of little consequence for what would happen were he to win the election and take on the longer-term challenges of governing, as distinct from the first six months in which his challenges were overwhelmingly in domestic politics and in the need to try to save the Coalition from electoral disaster.

Australian prime minister scott morrison calls election
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces the federal election for May 18 (Photo: Tracey Nearmy/Getty)

Australia’s big foreign policy challenges have understandably been put in the “to do later” basket, after the election. A re-elected Coalition government, however, would have to turn its attention to that list immediately it was sworn in, just as a newly elected Labor government would also have to do.

And while the betting odds are heavily against a Coalition victory, the possibility of its re-election must still be taken seriously, as should the consequences for Australian foreign policy and international relations.

The first thing that must be said about Morrison and foreign policy if he’s re-elected is that he will have to become fully and deeply immersed in the agenda of issues awaiting the incoming government. Apart from Kevin Rudd, whose life’s work had been in international relations and for whom foreign policy was both a passion and a natural fit, most Australian prime ministers in recent decades have needed to learn foreign policy on the job.

Morrison has made one major speech on foreign policy since he replaced Malcolm Turnbull - to the Asia Society in Sydney in early November, shortly after he announced a review of the case for moving the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. In that speech, Morrison asserted that a Coalition government under his leadership would pursue a foreign policy based on “values” rather than through a “transactional prism”. 



The values he listed included freedom of speech, thought and religion, racial and gender equality, liberal democracy, freedom of association, prosperity through private capital, the rule of law, equality of opportunity, separation of powers and standing by friends who share the same values. The focus on “values” reflected the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper which nominated “shared values” as the core of Australia’s pursuit of its international interests. Values of the kind outlined in the White Paper and embraced by Morrison in his November speech are values that few would contest as being those which represent Australian democracy and the Australian way of life.

But the embrace by Scott Morrison of the principle of values-driven foreign policy raises some interesting questions, not much discussed at the time but puzzled over since by some foreign policy analysts.

Scott Morrison is not just a politician. He is also a devout Christian in the evangelical stream of Christian belief. He is the first Australian prime minister whose faith is an unconventional (by Australian standards) brand of Christianity. His church, the Horizon Church, is closely linked to the US evangelical Christian movement, in particular to what is known as “prosperity theology”.

Scott Morrison shakes Bill Shorten's hand in Canberra church.
Morrison shakes Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's hand at a Canberra church service in Canberra in February (Photo: Tracey Nearmy/Getty)

Mark Jennings, lecturer in Religious Studies at Murdoch University, pointed out in an article in The Conversation that this stream of Christian faith is linked to “the neo-liberal approach to faith” which embraces as Christian principles the pursuit of “financial growth and entrepreneurial risk taking”.

Key members of Donald Trump’s administration – including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – are also members of evangelical churches which believe in “prosperity theology”. Donald Trump himself chose a televangelist from the prosperity theology movement as one of the religious leaders who offered prayers for him on his inauguration.

The influence of the evangelical Christian movement within the Trump administration is significant and becoming more apparent. Commentators have pointed to this influence in the Trump administration’s dramatic shift in US policy towards Israel. Evangelical Christians are the most pro-Israel lobby group in the US, on some estimates more supportive of Israel than American Jews. The evangelical movement believes that Bible tells us that the gathering of the Jews in Israel presages the return of Jesus to the Earth.

When the Morrison government announced that it was considering following the Trump administration’s lead and moving the Australian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it was seen as a cynical political move to win the by-election for Malcolm Turnbull’s seat, which has a large Jewish population. But subsequently, there has been discussion in political circles about whether there was something more to the move, that it may have been influence by Morrison’s personal Christian values, not just cynical politics. Reinforcing this speculation is the fact that the Australian evangelical Christian movement has been gaining influence within the Liberal Party for some time. A group of Liberals, including Morrison, regularly gathers for prayer meetings when federal parliament sits.

When he has been asked about the influence of his religious beliefs on his politics, Morrison has downplayed it. “The Bible is not a policy handbook,” he has been reported as saying. But the question is an important one.

The influence of the evangelical Christian movement within the Trump administration is significant and becoming more apparent.

In the US, the increasingly powerful sway of the values of conservative Christianity inside the Trump administration is impacting in areas which directly affect Australia, in particular in the US–China relationship. When in late 2017 the Trump administration amended its strategic guidance to declare China as a strategic rival rather than a partner, the fact that China is an atheistic communist power whose values are antithetical to fundamental American beliefs in Christianity and capitalism were clearly influential factors.

That tectonic shift in US thinking about China shook the Australian foreign policy establishment. It challenged the fundamental underlying assumption of Australian policy – that it could successfully balance its strategic alliance with the US and its economic relationship with China.

The shift in American thinking about China from partner to rival forced then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to reassess their own thinking about China, after a period of increasingly strained interaction between Australia and China.

For whomever wins the federal election, managing the Australia-China relationship and balancing it with the US alliance relationship will be by far the biggest foreign policy – and economic policy – challenge. If Scott Morrison defies the odds and secures election as Prime Minister in his own right, nothing else will so test his foreign policy and diplomacy skills.

Morrison will have a natural affinity with his faith-sharing partners in the US administration who have made it clear that they have no difficulty bringing to their political and policy judgements their deeply held Christian beliefs, as evidenced by Mike Pompeo’s statement that he believed it was possible that God had chosen to make Donald Trump President to “save Israel”.

We haven’t had an “evangelistic Christian” PM before. How powerfully Morrison’s deeply held personal religious beliefs and values would play into the way he does his job, should he retain it, could count for more in the foreign policy field than any other.

Australia’s election: Morrison fires the starter’s pistol

(Photo: Warren Black/Flickr)
(Photo: Warren Black/Flickr)
Published 11 Apr 2019 13:00   0 Comments

Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister better known to the rest of the world as “the new one”, has called the country’s federal election for 18 May. 

The facts of it are astonishing: a country approaching 27 years since its last economic recession has not seen a Prime Minister serve a full term of government in a decade.

In Australia, without fixed-term national governments, the party of government has the prerogative to choose the exact timing of the election, roughly every two-and-a-half to three years. Under the rules 18 May was the last possible date the 2019 election could be called, which should tell you something about how eager the current conservative Coalition government is to go to the polls. Not very.

After tearing down not one, but two, of its own prime ministers since winning government in 2014, the Liberal-National Coalition has perpetually trailed the Labor opposition in the polls, despite Labor’s personally unpopular leader, Bill Shorten. Morrison has been in the top job just seven months, after a right-wing cabal of MPs ousted his moderate predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, himself the political assassin of his more conservative predecessor Tony Abbott. 

Labor did the same in its last term, dispatching two PMs.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, centre (Photo: Department of Defence)

The facts of it are astonishing: a country approaching 27 years since its last economic recession has not seen a Prime Minister serve a full term of government in a decade. We should get a condition named after us (the Australian disease?) for a complacency-induced brand of self-defeating political dysfunction and leadership churn. 

Morrison’s announcement means weary Australian voters are bracing for another five-week national election campaign, culminating in a compulsory vote washed down with a democracy sausage*.

“We live in the best country in the world, but to secure your future, the road ahead depends on a strong economy,” Mr Morrison told a Canberra press pack early Thursday morning after announcing the election.

“That’s why there is so much at stake at this election. Despite global economic headwinds, Australia’s economy is strong. We are delivering the first budget surplus in more than a decade. Unemployment is at decade lows. And last year for the first time in our history more than 100,000 young Australians got a job.”

Battlelines were drawn along familiar themes: given another shot, the Coalition would maintain a strong economy, boost jobs, cut taxes, keep the borders secure, and finally deliver the elusive budget surplus that has been promised annually throughout the party’s nearly six years in government. 

Left out of the sales pitch was the litany of image problems the government is suffering, neatly summarised recently by outgoing cabinet minister Kelly O’Dwyer’s comment that her party are widely regarded as “homophobic, anti-women, climate-change deniers.”

Morrison, never what you’d call a memorable speechmaker, could only offer a lukewarm rallying cry as the figurehead of an incumbent government that’s deeply on the nose with voters. 

“There is more to do, and a lot has got done. We are getting on with the job,” he declared.

Morrison faces an opponent in Bill Shorten whose blancmange demeanour masks a history of bare-knuckled, backroom union power-broking. He’s been Opposition Leader for five-and-a-half-years, an age in our current milieu, and even survived the loss of a senator to a foreign interference scandal that brought Australia’s debate about Chinese influence to a head. 

Shorten is routinely referred to by satirical newspaper The Betoota Advocate as the Steven Bradbury of politics, for the Australian ice-skater who took gold in the 2002 Winter Olympics after all his opponents were taken out in a last-corner pile up. 

Opposition leader Bill Shorten (Photo: Department of Defence)

Still, Shorten deserves credit for keeping his party disciplined, and actually producing some courageous policies on climate change and negative gearing in the past year, while the Coalition government, ravaged by internal power tussles, has squandered its terms. 

Shorten, speaking after the Prime Minister’s election announcement, touted a “fair and inclusive” vision for Australia, and emphasised his party’s traditional strengths in health and education. 

“Today, the case to vote Labor is we will deliver more jobs, better health and education, take real action on climate change and renewable energy and help push energy prices down,” he told reporters.

“We’ll get on top of cost of living burdens and we’ll get wages moving again in this country. We can manage the economy in the interests of working- and middle-class people.”

Labor needs barely a 1% swing in the ballot results to win government, but Shorten denied he sees himself as the frontrunner.  

Of particular interest in the contest will be the fate of former prime minister Tony Abbott, whose well-heeled seat in Sydney’s north shore is under serious threat from star-powered independent Zali Steggall, a barrister and Olympian campaigning for action on climate. The other former Liberal prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, left parliament after he was pushed out of the PM’s job in August. Once-loyal Liberal voters in his seat vented their fury at his treatment in a by-election and installed another centrist independent, Dr Kerryn Phelps. 

A loss for Abbott, whose vociferously effective opposition to action on climate change has paralysed Australia’s energy policy for years, would mean voters even in his heartland want to draw a line under a dysfunctional decade in Australian politics.

Democracy Sausage

* The democracy sausage is traditional barbeque fare rolled out at polling places across the country on election day, and has done much in practical terms to enliven the ritual for queuing voters depressed by the self-serving machinations of their political class.