Published daily by the Lowy Institute

A question of faith: future Coalition foreign policy under Morrison

If he wins the Australian election, Scott Morrison's evangelical Christian faith may influence foreign policy.

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)

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.

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