Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Turnbull's travels won't quarantine him from domestic strife

Domestic politics has a pesky habit of interrupting foreign relationships.

Prime Minister Turnbull is on his way to Israel to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba. Above, a scene from the recent re-enactment. (Defence)
Prime Minister Turnbull is on his way to Israel to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba. Above, a scene from the recent re-enactment. (Defence)

Embarrassing? No, members of the government are right that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to cut short his visit to Israel by three days hardly amounts to a snub.

But awkward? Yes, in the way domestic politics has a pesky habit of interrupting carefully laid plans to manage foreign relationships, in this case a High Court ruling that saw Turnbull lose his deputy prime minister and with him a parliamentary majority.

This latest bout of political instability at home will cause Australia to be a somewhat distracted international partner in the next few weeks, right when regional diplomacy is about to come under intense attention.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was already seeking to smooth out wrinkles with New Zealand following Australia’s rancorous debate about the eligibility of several dual-citizen MPs, which eventually led to the High Court decision.

In August, Bishop had been quick to accuse New Zealand’s Labour Party of collusion with the Labor opposition in Australia after inquiries about citizenship rules, declaring it would be 'very difficult to build trust' with a New Zealand Labour government. At the time, her comments appeared a calculated distraction to muddle Labor’s domestic attack on the eligibility of Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce to sit in parliament, and made with the widely-held view that New Zealand’s Labour was unlikely to prevail in their election.

Except, of course, Labour did prevail. Bishop has since been forced to fend off as 'rubbish' claims that she damaged cross-Tasman relations after Jacinda Ardern finally won the support to form a government.

It might be neat to assume foreign relations can be quarantined from the grubby business of domestic politics, but it’s never been so simple.

John Howard once branded Barack Obama the favoured candidate of Osama bin Laden in a bid to fend off criticism of the Iraq war. Labor leader Bill Shorten took a swing at 'barking mad' Donald Trump during the US election last year, comments that are bound to be reprised should he ever become PM and look to drop by a Trump White House.

Yet political leaders, at least those in democracies, typically seem to be a forgiving bunch when it comes to their foreign counterparts. Shorten will undoubtedly point out that Turnbull later described as 'loathsome' Trump’s infamous hot mic remarks about women, yet without apparent damage to US-Australia relations. Kevin Rudd once saluted George W Bush at a NATO summit in Bucharest despite having campaigned to return Australian troops from the Iraq war.

Rewind a few weeks, and Turnbull might have expected the only domestic politics to interrupt his trip to Israel would be Labor’s internal debates about support for Palestine. He might even have been happy. But after the High Court ruling, had it not been for commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, Turnbull would likely have scrapped the Israel trip altogether, a move that would have been understood after Israeli leaders over the years scotched plans to visit Australia.

Some cancelations are keenly felt as a signal of where a country stands in the pecking order of relationships. When Barack Obama delayed a trip to Australia in March 2010 (over health care legislation), then postponed again in June that year (after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill), Australia’s then foreign minister Stephen Smith privately implored the Americans it would be 'disastrous' should he cancel again. Turnbull’s abbreviated trip to Israel won’t be seen in the same way.

Yet Turnbull does have other overseas commitments in the weeks ahead that will be harder to escape.

The summit season, including APEC and East Asia Summit, is about to commence against the backdrop of a nuclear North Korea, Trump’s first trip to Asia and the ever-present question of China’s power. These are delicate times. If the Prime Minister is not at the leader’s table for such meetings, Australia might as well not be there at all.

Parliament is not due to sit again until late November, so Turnbull will at least be spared a test of support in the House of Representatives until after his summitry is done. But as he travels the region, he might be asking other leaders to forgive him for a moment as he keeps a distracted eye on politics back home.

Photo courtesy of Department of Defence.

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