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US-China tensions set to test Australia's 45th parliament

US-China tensions set to test Australia's 45th parliament
Published 1 Jul 2016 

In one important respect, at least, it seems very likely that Malcolm Turnbull's election gamble will fail.

Turnbull not only wanted to win the 2 July election. He wanted to make it a victory that brought greater certainty and clarity to national politics by cleaning out the Senate. The painfully long election campaign was a consequence of Turnbull's decision to make this a double dissolution election, with every member of the Senate as well as the House of Representatives forced to seek re-election (in a normal, half-Senate election only senators on three-year terms have to re-contest their places.) 

With new Senate voting rules making it harder for fringe candidates to get elected, Turnbull's goal was to reduce the number of cross-bench (non-major party) senators and get a more workable parliament. Turnbull also aimed to achieve a combined total of government and pro-government senators and members of the House of Representatives to pass blocked building-industry regulation laws. That would require at least 114 votes at a combined sitting of the two houses.

Unless the opinion polls are completely wrong, Turnbull will not get close to achieving the 114 threshold. He will not, however, be too disappointed with that. [fold]

More distressingly for him, he seems unlikely to achieve any significant reduction in the number of cross-bench senators. Polling suggests between five and nine non-major party senators will be elected (there are currently nine!). There is a risk that Australia will once again have a hung parliament, as occurred in the 2010 election; that will happen if the Coalition loses more seats than expected and independents such as Tony Windsor and Robert Oakeshott return to parliament.

My own view is that this is unlikely. I think voters have only tuned in to this election at the very end of a very dull campaign and that it is only the opinion polls of the final week that matter. They point to a coalition victory. A smaller coalition government, but one still with a comfortable working majority, is the most likely result. But it will be a Coalition government facing a new Senate much the same as the Senate recently dissolved. This will mean, in reality, a 'no change' legislative situation. The government will have to continue negotiating with Labor, the Greens and the cross-bench senators to get its program through.

This is normal Australian politics. And normal politics means that the government will be able to get the overwhelming bulk of its legislative program through parliament. Nothing to fear here. In the areas of foreign affairs, defence and national security, nothing is likely to change from recent experience. To the extent that legislation is required to implement government policies, a Turnbull government can be expected to get it through the parliament. Even in the event that there is a hung parliament (which would almost certainly see House of Representatives independents support the continuation of a Turnbull-led Coalition minority government), there would be no prospect of a more radical, left-of-centre approach to strategic and security issues because there is a strong centre-right majority of Coalition and Labor MPs.

The reality of Australian politics is that the parliament can be relied upon to give its support to the government of the day on defence, strategic and security matters. What will potentially be of much greater interest during the term of the 45th Australian Parliament will be how Australia's place in the world is affected by external events and how the new government responds to them.

The new parliament will begin in a period of heightened global uncertainty. Brexit-induced global financial, economic, and political uncertainty is already creating political fallout here, seemingly strengthening the Coalition's argument that now is not the time for a change of government. The US presidential election is only five months away. A Trump victory would dramatically compound the global uncertainty. Almost no attention has been given in the election campaign to the potential fallout for Australia of a Trump presidency, apart from Bill Shorten getting a mild rebuke from Julie Bishop for suggesting that Trump could be bad for Australia.

Both sides of politics have taken a 'we'll deal with that if and when it happens' approach. But for the next government, the settings for Australian foreign policy may come under huge strain, potentially the most serious since the creation of the ANZUS alliance.

There are few clues as to how a Shorten government would respond to such a challenge. Shorten has little interest in non-domestic issues and has said little about his worldview. But he can be expected to fully embrace the modern Labor Party view that there is nothing to be gained for Labor in moving to the left on strategic and security issues. Turnbull, on the other hand, is an internationalist. Before he became prime minister he made several major speeches on Australian foreign policy, including a notable one in October 2011 in which he advocated a more accommodating Australian view of China's global ambitions.

Regardless of who wins the US presidential election, US policy towards China appears likely to harden. Even before then, tensions could well escalate over the South China Sea territorial disputes. How will a Turnbull government respond to this or, under a President Trump, the US possibly walking away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and escalating tensions with China over trade? Since he became prime minister, Turnbull has stuck to the Abbott Government's line on US-China relations, drawing the ire of the leading Australian advocate of a rebalancing of Australia's relationships with the US and China, Professor Hugh White.

But one of the big questions about the future of Australian politics is how a victorious Turnbull might change and become more his own policy person, with his own election mandate. Centrist Liberals are predicting a different Turnbull with a more progressive policy agenda after an election victory. Coalition conservatives certainly are convinced that Turnbull's tilt towards the right of the Liberal Party since he became prime minister is a political tactic, not a real change. They expect Turnbull to move left once he feels he has his own mandate.

On foreign policy, alarm bells are already being rung. A recently published article in the conservative magazine Quadrant warned of a post-election 'pivot towards China'. It accused Turnbull of 'Sinophilia' and of being 'poorly informed...on China's security and defence developments'. But the Quadrant take on where Australian policy should be towards China appears to be well to the right of the Australian mainstream. A recently published survey of Australian public attitudes to the strategic relationship with the US and economic relationship with China found that the Australian public is surprisingly relaxed about the rising power of China vis-à-vis the US.

This might change in the event of a serious escalation of tensions between China and the US. And the test of that might come quite soon in the term of the new government. One thing seems certain: foreign affairs will be a big domestic issue in the life of the 45th Australian Parliament.

Photo: Getty Images/Ryan Pierse

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