Cowardly Labor won’t fight Morrison over China policy

Enemies, foreign and domestic, appear to be preoccupying the minds of our foreign minister, Marise Payne, and our Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds as they maintain their lonely patrols in the diplomatic cocktail circuit and the officers’ messes.

It’s a pretty fair bet that the last place from which they expect a surprise attack is from Anthony Albanese, Penny Wong, Richard Marles or Mark Dreyfus, the members of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition from whom one might expect intelligent criticism of Australian national security, defence and foreign policy.

It is not quite as though they are fast asleep, or even that they have formally decided to leave the space entirely to Scott Morrison and the coalition. One can hear sometimes delicate criticisms, the more robustly offered the less they contain anything in the way of substance.

Shadow Defence Minister, Richard Marles, for example, has volunteered that he thinks that Australia sends China inconsistent messages, and that it is time for the relationship to be managed by “the adults in the room.” Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong is deeply suspicious of China’s efforts to increase its influence in the world and multilateral bodies.

She thinks, I think, that we should seek to do much the same, and without seeing everything through a US-China lens.  Mark Dreyfus, no doubt, thinks we should defend our fundamental civil liberties, but only by moving a millimetre to the left of where the coalition stands at any particular moment.

And Anthony Albanese? Well, he is not going to let himself be wedged by a cunning coalition. Nor be forced to fight on ground of the government’s choosing. He does not want to be accused of being weak on protecting the nation.  Swinging loosely over any national security round hole where the government dangles him, the instinct of this square peg is to immediately declare that the government’s tendentious proposition, whatever it is, is not in issue: Labor will support its broad thrust.

This is the sort of strategy over national security that worked so well for his predecessor, Bill Shorten, adding to popular impressions that he was less than straightforward or genuine. Albanese, elected leader in part because he had some genuine character, however rough-hewn, and conveyed a certain authenticity, has decided that the first step in being a leader is to stop being the thing that made him electorally attractive.

The essential Labor “small target” tactic on national security policy has a long history, but not a glorious one. It is not a history of success — ever. Gough Whitlam consciously crafted a foreign policy sharply at odds with the government of Billy McMahon, and was called a traitor for his pains for his promises about recognising China — at least until it emerged that President Nixon was at just the same time opening the diplomatic door. Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd had clear views on foreign policy, ones they were not scared to articulate.

Hawke may have been, for his time, more to the right than some in the party would have wanted, but he never ducked a debate on the subject, and no one could have said his policy was a just slightly pinker version of the policy of Malcolm Fraser. Keating came late to defence and foreign policy, but came to see the one he developed, in conjunction with Kim Beazley and Gareth Evans as an essential part of Australia’s being a contributing citizen of the world. He also saw it as something which defined himself.

Kevin Rudd had a diplomatic background — indeed one steeped in matters Chinese — and came to power in part on an impression that he had a bold and confident view — different from an out-of-date Howard view about matters such as Barack Obama or world action on climate change — of how Australia could make the world a better place.  No one ever accused him of kowtowing to China, even if he spoke the language. Gillard did not really have an international perspective on becoming prime minister, and, on doing so, shifted sharply from her old views and perspectives. But she did not look to coalition philosophers — and certainly not Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison for strategy or tactics or basic approach.

Kim Beazley had, in government, and, later after his active political career, a formidable reputation on defence and foreign policy. But as Opposition leader he was advised by the many “stable geniuses” he had about him — mostly from the NSW Right — that Labor could not win government on such issues. This was in part because John Howard was so cunning in setting up obstacle courses and political wedges that would make Labor look “weak”. Labor’s forte was, of course, domestic and social policy — bar economic management — and it would win when these were the issues foremost in voter’s minds.

It was Labor’s fault that the small target strategy also let pass by default the argument that Labor was weak and profligate on economic policy and, while Beazley was finance minister, had left a terrible fiscal “black hole” on leaving office in 1996. [Indeed, it was of a size Howard, as Treasurer, had left Hawke in 1983].

At Beazley’s second showing, he looked a likely winner until the Tampa incident and then the World Trade Centre bombing on September 11, 2001, transformed the election into one on border security and national security. His excuse for defeat was that the nation, at a time of crisis, swings behind its leaders. The truth, rather, was that the electorate saw Beazley retreat from defining a Labor position, and came to think that Howard had been right in questioning whether Beazley had the “ticker” for the job of leadership.

Bill Shorten, once he became opposition leader, followed the Beazley approach. He was given to avoiding being set up by the government, not least by Tony Abbott who did not hesitate to use national security policy in political warfare, continually attempting to establish “tests” Labor had to pass to prove that it was not as weak as he claimed. Abbott was greatly given to standing alongside military figures, security officials and police, surrounded by an ever-increasing number of flags.

At each, in somewhat the present manner of Scott Morrison, he would announce some terrible impending threat to the national security, the risk of a fresh invasion of boat people, or an impending outbreak of jihadist terror. Each required urgent draconian action, if only to test Labor loyalty. On one occasion, Abbott wanted to send  armed forces to secure the ground of a downed aircraft in contested territory in Ukraine. Not long before his leadership imploded, he was said to have demanded that his national security establishment provide him with a (public) national security crisis each week in the lead-up to an election.

The stable geniuses declared that Shorten had neatly navigated all the mined ground, avoiding the booby traps, and had neutralised issues — such as over boat people — the government was seeking to exploit for its political advantage. On such issues — to paraphrase Abbott — there was soon not a cigarette paper’s worth of difference between Labor and coalition policy. That is, of course, because Labor had adopted coalition policy — not because it had used debate to force the coalition into any sort of compromise or middle ground.

That’s pretty much the strategy under Albanese, at least as adroit at avoiding being shot down, if only because Labor surrenders before shots are fired. But Shorten was never accused of having had any abiding belief he had not workshopped; Albanese, by contrast, was supposed to believe in things, and only rarely what conservatives thought.

Albanese’s reluctance to be drawn into an argument means that he has diminished opportunities, even in normal times, for “statesmanship”, for standing on any sort of national stage, for being in any sort of visible dialogue with representatives of other nations. It’s a reason why a few incoming prime ministers who had never before manifested much interest in international affairs suddenly realise the limelight it offers.

The smart ones — Morrison and Howard,  for example — realise that it is not the international stage they are ascending. It is only a local pulpit, but it is one quite different from the usual political soapbox. When one affects a solemn face, a hand on one’s chest or in forward salute, the crowd, and the opposition, will be muted, and dubious statements — even pure tosh — will be unchallenged. We are talking about national security and transcending national interests after all.  A perfect moment, in short, for the crudest politics. Not a time for forbearance, or decency, or telling the truth.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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