Australia caught in a time warp

Contemporary Australia has some sorry echoes of a less-liberal past, especially as our relations with China continue to deteriorate

In 1993, as the newly appointed editor of the South China Morning Post, I interviewed Lu Ping, the official in charge of China’s arrangements for the Hong Kong handover.

As Lu entered the meeting room, his first words were:

“They tell me you’re Australian.”

“Yes,” I replied, wondering what was to come.

“Good,” he said.

It’s impossible to imagine such an exchange these days.

I returned to Australia recently after 17 years in Asia. I’m happy to be back in such a friendly, beautiful, efficient country but I feel as though I have been caught in a time warp. Much has changed in that time but so much – too much – is sadly familiar. Sadly, because there are many echoes of a more authoritarian past.

Lu’s approval of my nationality was emblematic of the good relations between Australia and China in the past, from the time of the Whitlam government’s diplomatic recognition in 1972, through the hiccups of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership to the sorry unravelling that began in the terms of Malcolm Turnbull and Xi Jinping.

China once viewed Australia as a reliable supplier of materials it needed, as technologically advanced enough to be useful but small enough not to be a threat, and as friendly.

Former leader Jiang Zemin, in a 1999 interview, told The Australian’s Paul Kelly and me that Australia was thrice-blessed by god: it had great beauty, abundant natural resources – and not too many people.

Now, according to officially sanctioned rhetoric, Beijing sees Australia as chewing gum on the sole of China’s shoe. In Asian societies, there is nothing lower or dirtier than the sole of the foot.

China under Xi has veered in a disturbing and dangerous direction – retro-Maoist-repressive at home, assertive and antagonistic abroad. Australia has responded by pushing back, to use the current jargon. We view China, however, through the prisms of the security, defence and intelligence services. We have become a more illiberal society that has moved closer to the United States and its militaristic stance in Asia.

Once we talked about Australia choosing between its geography and its history. We have chosen our history.

I wish it were only China policy that was caught in the time warp but other aspects of society have echoes of the past.

Government accountability, sleaze and corrupt practices, corporate governance, respect for Indigenous culture and heritage, sexual harassment and the place of women in business, and academic freedom, have all regressed. Climate policy is an exception: it has never been nudged far enough into the future to be judged as having returned to the past.

It is not nostalgic indulgence to recall a time when political leaders were serious about government accountability and combatting sleaze and corruption. Five state jurisdictions have anti-corruption bodies (starting with Nick Greiner’s ICAC in NSW in 1989) but the Morrison government’s contributions to upholding integrity in public life have been to announce, after a long delay, what the late Ron Mulock would have called a gummy shark commission, plus squeezing the funding for the Australian National Audit Office.

This year has been a sorry time for sleaze and corruption. Investigative journalist Michael West has produced a detailed list of contemporary cases but 2020’s lapses include the Leppington Triangle land purchase, the sports rorts affair, the ICAC investigation into former MP Daryl Maguire and Gladys Berejiklian’s willful reluctance to consider the implications of her friendship with him for her ministerial code of conduct.

Not to forget Christine Holgate’s Cartier-inspired elitist insensitivity or James Shipton’s sense of entitlement for taxpayer funding of his tax advice bill.

Nor is it simply wistful to think back to a time when company chairs and chief executives talked about good corporate governance as though they were serious about standards.

Contrast that with the allegations of money laundering and the avoidance of accountability that have come to light during the official inquiry into Crown Resorts.

Contrast it also with the findings of the royal commission into financial institutions: money laundering, including financing of terrorist organisations and child-sex rackets; charging dead people; and charging fees for no-service. Enough to earn Westpac a $1.3billion fine.

It has been disappointing to see the decline in respect for Indigenous heritage. Recent examples are Rio Tinto’s shattering of its past good record on links with Aboriginal communities with the calculated destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves, Victoria’s felling of a treasured Djab Wurrung directions tree and Fortescue Metals holding back royalty payments to pressure an Indigenous corporation to agree to new leases.

I wonder what the late Susan Ryan would have made of the decline in respect for the role and position of women. From the telling lack of attention to childcare in the budget and of support for women’s jobs in the Covid-19 recovery plans, through to allegations or findings of high-level sexual harassment – a former judge, a senior AMP executive and a university vice-chancellor – and confirmation by 4 Corners this week (if it were needed) of sleazy and hypocritical behaviour within the Parliament House bubble.

Progress in the number of women reaching senior executive ranks in big companies is stagnating. And of the 25 CEOs appointed to ASX 200 companies this year, only one was a woman. The boys’ club is surging back.

Australia’s great achievement of 2020 has been bringing Covid-19 under control. Our numbers haven’t quite earned us envy-of-the-world status but overall our governments and healthcare teams and systems have done very well. But the achievement has come at a cost – and it is not just the economy. Our response has had a distinct authoritarian streak, especially with the heavy-handed deployment of the police. And political leaders have gained through governing by fear.

There is more than a hint of old-style anti-intellectualism in the Federal Government’s decision to double fees for humanities degree while cutting fees for other disciplines that might produce what Education Minister Dan Tehan calls job-ready graduates – especially as this is a way of hitting at progressive academics and their ability to produce what might be termed “woke-ready” graduates.

This sad theme continues with the Government’s foreign veto bill, requiring official approval of arrangements between Australian institutions and overseas governments and bodies. The bill aims to give the foreign minister power to make sure international agreements are consistent with Australian foreign policy. Bringing overseas agreements by State governments into line with the national interest is justified but the extension of the power over thousands of arrangements organised by our universities is obsessive micro-management and interference with academic freedom.

And this brings us back to China.

It’s always officially unstated but the legal changes that give government – and the security agencies – more control (foreign espionage and interference laws, the cyber security laws and big budgets) are all aimed at China’s efforts to exert control within Australia.

Our new version of forward defence (outlined in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update that Scott Morrison launched in July) is also aimed at China. Morrison said we were living in the most challenging times since the 1930s and early 1940s. He should cool the rhetoric: these were years when we really were at war.

China’s transgressions under Xi Jinping have provoked a strong Australian response. And rightly so. And having taken a stand against human rights abuses, the effective takeover of Hong Kong and China’s regional belligerence, Australia cannot backpedal: that would be an invitation to a bully.

We stand firm – and then trust to luck on trade. With no luck.

What is missing is any obvious attempt to manage the relationship.

Olive branches extended by China’s deputy head of mission Wang Xining in August and former ambassador Fu Ying in October have been ignored, which means rejected.

We continue to view China through the prism of defence/security/intelligence without broadening our thinking to include history, culture and the Chinese people or the long history of Chinese immigration to Australia.

China is a regional superpower and is contesting America’s place as the main global power. We should be looking for ways of living with China and adjusting to the changing international order. Kevin Rudd makes a point that is worth considering: If Japan can have a mature, professional relationship with China, why can’t Australia?

The election of Joe Biden might provide a chance for a reset. Under Biden, the strategic contest with China will continue and the US will remain tough on trade, technology, cyber security and military power. But it might lower the temperature a little by trying to work with China on such issues as future pandemics and climate change. Appointing a Secretary of State whose name is not Mike Pompeo will help.

Morrison’s stand on China, however, is popular. A Pew Research Center international poll released in October found that 81 per cent of Australians have negative views of China. When policies are popular our marketing-oriented politicians don’t change.

And people like Eric Abetz are encouraged in despicable acts like demanding a loyalty test for Australians of Chinese heritage. Linda Jakobson of China Matters cited it as a sign of Australian McCarthyism; lawyer Jason Yatsen Li said it was racist. They are both right.

McCarthyism, racism, the sneering way people refer to the Communist Party rather than the government are all echoes of the 50s and 60s. We are slipping towards a new Cold War. At times, I half expect to see once again big maps with China at the top and red arrows pointing down towards Australia.

An overstated concern, you might say. But such is the nature of the time warp.
David Armstrong has had a career in media in Australia and Asia spanning more than 40 years. He is a former editor of The Bulletin and of the Canberra Times and editor-in-chief of The Australian and the South China Morning Post. He is currently chair of UCA News Ltd

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