Clown but not out: foreign policy failures won’t wing Morrison

Nov 10, 2021
Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson at COP26.
Australia risks facing sanctions if it doesn't do better on climate change. (Image: Flickr/Number 10)

Despite his French frolics and Glasgow flameout, this PM will rely on domestic optimism when he chases his second poll win.

Victory at the 2022 election will go to the party leader best able to show how a stronger, wealthier and kinder nation emerges.

But Scott Morrison, the marketing man with messages, has yet to show any sort of vision for the future, and looks at least somewhat handicapped in campaigning, as he largely did last time, on warnings about Labor’s leadership or the risk that Labor will ruin the economy.

He ought to have a message to sell about navigating Australia through recovery from the pandemic and the recession. But his mistakes of the past year, and resentments that he and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have cultivated, make it more likely that the election will be settled not on achievements but aspirations, ideas and ideals for a better, bigger and renewed Australia. And that’s just the area where he is weak.

But it is probably idle to consider that the past two weeks have greatly damaged Morrison’s capacity to be re-elected.

Like politicians around the world, and successive Australian politicians, Morrison chiefly plays foreign affairs and national security policy for a domestic audience. Most Australians are neither deeply concerned with the nation’s relations with other countries, especially with its detail, and there is a national prejudice, to which politicians on both sides, but particularly the Coalition, have pandered, about being told what we ought to do by outsiders or international bodies.

Getting up the nose of a French president may even be a badge of honour in some quarters. Nonetheless many Australians are well informed about our trading relationships, and the fall in Australia’s reputation — so much of it because of the personality of Morrison himself — will hardly bring the Coalition votes.

We can fairly confidently expect that France and its president, Emmanuel Macron, would like to inflict further political damage on Morrison. It may be exquisite and focused on some defining Morrison conceit or characteristic.

But I would be very surprised if the revenge is focused at doing serious damage on Australia itself, given first, the way Macron distinguished his grudge with Morrison and the allegation of deceit, from a general affection for Australia, and second, the moral advantage he already has over Morrison’s clumsy but unsuccessful attempt to prove that no misleading conduct was involved.

No doubt the French still smart at the loss of their submarine contract, though it is not impossible that they could retrieve even that further down the line.

One of the reasons the contract was becoming unwieldy was that the submarine we were buying was nuclear-powered, but that Australia, at the time of making the contract, wanted the standard French design to be powered by diesel and batteries. It was that variation which was making the project difficult and expensive.

Once Australia decided, for lunatic reasons of its own, that it would now prefer a nuclear-powered submarine, the French were as well-equipped and able to produce a fleet of them as Britain or the US, from one of whom we hope to make a purchase. Given the very long lead-up times, and the price, it is not impossible that France could even do it more quickly and more cheaply, for what that is worth.

Of course Morrison did not embarrass Australia only with the French. President Joe Biden has made it eminently clear that he considers that Australia was very clumsy in its dealings with France, and has moved to repair US-French relations without regard to Morrison’s feelings. Long before that, Morrison’s over-enthusiastic tilt towards Donald Trump has made the present US administration less than completely enthusiastic about its most loyal and uncritical ally, in much the same manner that Bill Clinton and (the campaigning) Barack Obama had no affection for John Howard.

While Boris Johnson was kind enough to describe Morrison’s net-zero policies as “heroic”, Morrison’s presence, or speeches, were hardly applauded by members of the European community, by other British observers, or most G-20 leaders. They may have satisfied the rump of the National Party, but they disappointed millions of Australians who were hoping that Australia could take a lead, in its own interest as much as the world’s.

The impression, here and abroad  is that Australia is increasingly a selfish and self-absorbed nation, without much sense of international citizenship, and with a particular meanness of spirit in matters such as refugees, human right, and authoritarianism.

As Frydenberg has warned, increasingly the international financial system will judge Australia on perceptions of whether it is doing its bit. Our bona fides and our reputation in our neighbourhood will likewise be a hostage to perceptions of the calibre of the national leadership — Liberal, National or Labor. What a pity that Labor is so shy of creating clear choices, or of establishing some credentials for a rebirth of a liberal nation good to and at peace with its neighbours, more concerned with example than with pandering to the lowest common denominator of Australian society.

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