Australian Media in the Asian Century: Bogans in a Monaro alarm business

Jun 4, 2021

You would not know it from the coverage of Scott Morrison’s foray to meet Jacinda Ardern in Queenstown last weekend – which was all about Anzac “family” trumping trade interests on China etc – but the government is in a sullen defensive on its handling of China relations.

Morrison is under attack from the Coalition’s own friends in the business community, as The Australian’s Ben Packham and Paul Garvey demonstrated when they got hold of a tirade by Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox, a former Alexander Downer aide and consul-general in Los Angeles, to staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Willox said the government should calm tensions with China through “negotiation, common sense and diplomacy”, though not at the expense of Australia’s national interests. Otherwise Australia faced a long-feared “day of reckoning” between its security and economic relationships.

Tensions could escalate, and Willox called for an end to inflammatory language, such as that used by the Home Affairs Secretary Michael Pezzullo in his “drums of war” message on Anzac Day. Packham and Garvey found Willox’s comments backed by other prominent corporate figures, including Warwick Smith, the former Liberal MP and minister, who runs the Business Council’s international engagement efforts.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese meanwhile followed up with a speech to the Minerals Council of Australia repeating Penny Wong’s earlier attack on Morrison’s government for unnecessarily inflaming the China relationship.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton responded on Wednesday with a version of the “stab in the back” line favoured by German generals on their 1918 defeat. “At a time when our partners are coming together and understand the intelligence and threats within our region, the Leader of the Opposition is seeking to undermine the position,” he said.

But it was all buried well down in reports, which looked ahead to Morrison’s attendance at the G7 meeting in Cornwell next week, where he’s expected to get needled about his climate change activity, and needs toi deal with Britain’s entirely predictable attempt to carve out lots of agriculture from the mooted free trade agreement.

One of the best lines on the war talk by Dutton and Pezzullo came from The Australian’s columnist Katrina Grace Kelly:

We look like a bunch of bogans in a Monaro, doing burnouts on the world stage, yelling obscenities out the window while giving people the finger.


Coming from one of the News Corp’s regular attack-dog columnists usually on the side of the government, that must have hurt.

The Suich attack

Canberra is also awfully quiet about the series in The Australian Financial Review by Max Suich, the famed editor of the National Times in its heyday, former Tokyo correspondent etc.

Jacob Greber of the AFR got only the mildest of denials from outgoing DFAT secretary Frances Adamson in one of the paper’s softly-softly “lunch with” interviews last weekend.

“I ask about Max Suich’s series this month in The Australian Financial Review, which is highly critical of the Australian government’s handling of China and implies that the relationship has been hijacked from DFAT by the intelligence community and a group of belligerent politicians,” Greber writes.

“Adamson says she respects Suich, but disagrees with his analysis and the idea that the spooks have taken over foreign policy and damaged Australia’s economic interests in the process. “That’s not the case. I think there’s been a convergence between the way we see our national security and our economic interest, and an agreement about the need to defend those interests when they come under pressure.”

Greber reported the furthest she went towards taking a shot at Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo’s ANZAC Day “drums of war” speech was to say, “Different words could have been chosen.” But, she adds, “There is no difference of views [within the bureaucracy]. And I would never argue that we should just let things slide,” she says of China’s actions.

Adamson argued it was not just Australia that was having problems with the China of Xi Jinping. She didn’t tackle Suich’s other contention – that Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull had been “out in front” on matters like the Huawei ban, rather unwisely compared to other middle powers who stayed in the crowd, and had suffered measurable penalty for it, ie $20 billion in lost trade so far.

Perhaps Adamson will be more pointed when she speaks to the National Press Club on June 23, but she will still have two days before leaving DFAT to become South Australia’s governor later in the year.

Army discipline for DFAT?

Those who feel foreign policy is actually too dominated by military and security intelligence community would have shuddered at a new name added last Friday to the sweepstake on who will replace Adamson at DFAT.

According to The Australian’s political reporters Geoff Chambers and Simon Benson, recipients of frequent drops from the prime minister’s office, one Kathryn Campbell is “tipped as a frontrunner” for the secretary’s job.

They reported that “Campbell, who is close to Mr Morrison and has led the government’s Covid-19 welfare program, is considered a DFAT outsider, which is viewed by some as a positive for leading the ­nation’s diplomatic and trade agenda.”

Campbell is currently secretary of the Department of Social Services and previously of the former human services department, at the time of the Robo episode. On top of that she is a part-time soldier, a major-general in the army reserves and at one time deputy commander of the joint task force running Australian forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

What a record: Robodebt, Afghanistan and now the Covid-19 response! No wonder that, according to Chambers and Benson, she was described by Morrison as “one of the finest public officials in our public service”.

The leaving of Afghanistan

Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s abrupt announcement of the closure of Australia’s embassy in Kabul on May 28 on safely grounds, to be replaced by visits from missions in South Asia or the Middle East, faces building criticism.

For once, Morrison’s government was ignoring the advice of The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan. “Kabul is a dangerous city and it is perfectly OK for us to move our embassy inside an American compound,” he wrote. “It’s nicer to be out on our own, but the safety of our diplomats, and our locally engaged staff, must be given a very high priority.

“Everyone knows how close we are to the Americans. Co-locating with them doesn’t change anyone’s view of us, nor does it change any reality.

“But to pull out the embassy altogether and operate it on a fly-in, fly-out basis from some other regional capital would be the most pathetic abdication of elementary solidarity with our Afghan allies.”

Sheridan added: “If true, this shows what a colossal, overwhelming failure the whole Afghanistan operation has been. Twenty years, trillions of dollars, thousands of allied soldiers dead and tens of thousands of Afghans, and it’s not even safe for a single Aussie diplomat to stay anywhere in Kabul.”

His colleague Amanda Hodge meanwhile reported the Office of the Special Investigator into war crimes by Australian soldiers could find its building of cases impeded by the embassy closure.

Other reports point to the dangers facing embassy local staff who may be targeted for reprisals if the Taliban regain control in Kabul. Not to worry, applications are being expedited, says the Department of Home Affairs.

But Home Affairs says it’s making applicants for asylum in Australia prove they are “at significant risk of harm as a result of their employment or support to Australia’s mission”. And then still meet “rigorous health, character and national ­security requirements.”

Thankfully it’s not a Saigon-style helicopter on the roof evacuation.

Perhaps Sheridan hit on the best way to ginger up the Morrison government when he compared the effort to that by “the most dishonourable gov­ernment Australia has ever had” (ie that of Gough Whitlam) when it took only a tenth of the Vietnamese on an embassy protection list out of Saigon in 1975.

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