Australian Media in the Asian Century

Jun 18, 2021

Scott Morrison calling.   It’s been another fortnight of triumph in world forums for Scott Morrison, if you’ve read the headlines and lead paragraphs in The Australian and the Australian Financial Review.

“Australia is stitching together a web of alliances with other nations at bilateral, minilateral and multilateral levels as its seeks to build a democratic consensus over how to confront the challenges posed by China,” reported the AFR’s Andrew Tillett as Morrison headed off to the G7 summit in Cornwall as invited observer. Australia winning friends and influencing people on world stage, the headline ran.

“Australia is in the right company for the times,” the AFR declared in its editorial. “The world’s leading democracies that make up the G7 know that they must defend their order from authoritarian challengers. It is appropriate that Australia is standing with them…The G7 this weekend is an important moment for Australia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a guest as the world’s leading democracies meet, but he is no spectator.”

Over at The Oz, the headline wasPM top of G7 leaders’ Covid class” for a report by Simon Benson and Patrick Commins, while Benson teamed up with Geoff Chambers to note that getting the World Trade Organisation dispute mechanism restored was Morrison’s goal to curb China’s economic coercion, without mentioning that Morrison’s buddy Donald Trump had sabotaged it. In another editorial, the AFR did at least mention that Trump had “trashed” the WTO appellate body.

Singapore grip on reality

The most bizarre beat-up as Morrison started his travels came from Geoff Chambers of The Oz, part of the travelling media with the PM.

“PM will speak for ASEAN at summit,” went the headline, as Chambers continued: “Scott Morrison will advocate the views and ambitions of ASEAN leaders when he travels to the G7 summit, after holding a private meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a flying visit to the strategic city-state,” Chambers reported, mentioning Morrison had also talked by phone to the leaders of Indonesia and Vietnam.

As Chambers had to report later, Lee told the media after meeting Morrison that China’s “substantial presence” meant “countries like Australia will have to work with it, whether it be on interests that align or where ­mutual co-operation is necessary.”

“You need to work with the country,” Lee said. It is going to be there. It’s going to be a substantial presence. And you can co-operate with it, you can engage with it, you can negotiate with it, but it has to be a long and mutually constructive process. You don’t have to become like them, neither can you hope to make them ­become like you. You have to be able to work on that basis.”

That doesn’t appear to have been the message Morrison took to G7 at all.

Triumph in the Anglosphere

 In fact, Morrison’s presence at the G7 hardly rated a mention anywhere except in the Australian media. His media conferences seemed sparsely attended, mostly by Australian journalists. TV glimpses showed him just as a jocular figure on the fringes, bumping elbows with the G7 leaders and getting them to pose for photos with him.

Has any visiting Australian seemed so woefully out of his depth? Perhaps not since Bazza McKenzie stepped off the boat at Tilbury.

Even his planned one-on-one meeting with Joe Biden turned out a threesome, with Boris Johnson as usual hogging the limelight. But not to be beaten, the AFR’s Hans van Leeuwen found the right spin: “Prime Minister Scott Morrison has used his visit to the G7 leaders’ summit to breathe new life into the Anglosphere, joining a three-way meeting with US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to discuss Indo-Pacific security.”

Van Leeuwen’s old boss at the Australian High Commission, Alexander Downer also said China had been delivered a stiff message. “It’s all been put very politely, of course. That is the British way,” Downer said in his fortnightly AFR column:

In years to come, when we judge the premiership of Scott Morrison we won’t remember the day-to-day events that ABC political correspondents hyperventilate about night after night. But we will remember the way Scott Morrison and his team managed the aggression of China. China decided to turn on Australia to teach not just Australia, but other countries, a lesson. You don’t mess with China. You tremble and obey. Well, the people who have learned a lesson are the denizens of Beijing. They’ve learned that Australia has great and powerful friends who will come to its side if Australia is threatened. In particular the Americans and the British have done just that, and they have rallied the rest of the West to our cause.

 In The Oz, Chambers declared that allies had rallied to the PM’s call on China: “Scott Morrison has won the support of the world’s biggest democracies and Australia’s wartime allies – the US and Britain – in pushing back against growing Chinese power and influence in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Apparently given the drop on Morrison’s private address to a G7-plus leaders’ session, Chambers said Morrison would “outline Australia’s experience and the need to embrace a liberal, rules-based order as authoritarian states aggressively pushed alternatives.”

In addition: “The Australian understands Mr Morrison won support – which was expected to be reflected in the final G7 communique – in relation to his calls for the World Health Organisation to be bolstered with new powers similar to those of weapons inspectors.”

If so, the G7 final statement was rather milder on both fronts. In the New York Times, David E. Sanger and Mark Landler reported that the G7 leaders were not all on board taking it up to China, quoting officials as saying that “Germany, Italy and the European Union were clearly concerned about risking their huge trade and investment deals with Beijing or accelerating what has increasingly taken on the tones of a new Cold War.”

They went on: “There is also evidence that Mr. Biden recognizes that his aggressive language about China — as the great adversary in a fateful struggle between democracies and autocracies — is discomfiting to many Europeans. He has largely shunned that framing in the days leading up to his European tour, speaking more generally about the need to promote democracies in a competitive world. For some analysts, that opens the door to a hopeful scenario in which the United States and Europe move toward one other, moderating the most extreme aspects of confrontation versus conciliation in each others’ approaches.”

Sheridan tepid

For once, Greg Sheridan was less than enthusiastic. “More good than bad, but no triumph either” went the head on his analysis:

This has been a good meeting of the G7 and its democratic friends in shoring up strategic coherence, the sense of identity, of the West.

Therefore, it’s a good G7 for Australia.

Not everything about it has gone Scott Morrison’s way but it was good to be invited and the outcomes were generally positive for Canberra.

The No 1 strategic concern for Australia is China, and almost everything the G7 did was under the shadow of China and in response to China.

Therefore the determination of wealthy democratic countries to provide more and better infrastructure funding so that low and middle income countries have an alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road money, with all its strings and traps and geo-strategic purposes, is a very good thing.

Similarly, the G7 still wants to find out how Covid-19 began and why. It is certainly better for Australia to be running this argument among the G7 than on its own, but I am still a bit baffled about why Morrison wants to run it at all.

It was perfectly sensible to support US President Joe Biden’s direction to his own intelligence agencies to come up with a net assessment of what the probabilities are that the virus came to us naturally or whether it might have escaped from a Chinese lab.

Given there is zero chance Beijing will co-operate, and that calling for the inquiry on our own last year caused us such grief with Beijing, it’s difficult to see what Australia gets out of this.

Maybe Sheridan needed to be there.

Duchessed in London

Generations of Australian diplomats, politicians, academics and others who spent their careers labouring to turn the country away from its Anglophilia towards inclusion in Asia would have groaned at the grovelling acceptance of a new free trade agreement with Britain.

Even the best spin saw it eventually adding five or six per cent of the trade already lost with China. For all the preliminary talk about not signing a deal that wasn’t comprehensive, London won a 15-year phase-in for beef and lamb, with a mechanism to intervene if Australian exports got out of hand for British farmers.

And for a Coalition that proudly declares it decides the circumstances under which people come to Australia, it caved in to a British demand that British working holiday makers be excused the 88-day farm labour requirement to extend their visas.

The AFR thought in its editorial that this “opens up the prospect of offering more work to people from the Pacific islands, where these days we have an acute need to match China’s economic influence.”

But no. The Nationals and Australian farm lobbies have been placated by an announcement that the gap in cheap, exploitable labour this will create will be filled by a new visa category. As Cait Kelly reported in The New Daily website:

The labour shortage left by British backpackers are expected to be plugged by a new visa, with workers coming from the 10 ASEAN countries. Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack on Wednesday promised the new visa system would be in place within three months. The overhaul has been warmly welcomed by the powerful industry peak body, the National Farmers Federation, which has campaigned for a dedicated agriculture visa for years.

Kelly noted this very big change “could all but guarantee widespread exploitation throughout the picking industry, with non-English-speaking workers left vulnerable to wage theft and racism.”

As migration expert Abul Rizvi and many others have observed, our horticulture relies on pools of easily cheatable workers – backpackers, Pacific islanders, and visa overstayers — most of them directly employed by labour hire companies rather than the farmers, and with laughably inadequate monitoring by government agencies. Now we are adding Southeast Asians, ensuring for years to come more scandals to buttress the persistent regional suspicions about White Australia.

Still, Morrison found admiration in the media for his feat of winning this less than complete FTA from a Boris Johnson desperate to show something positive after leaving the European Union. Australia — once a destination for British convicts, these days the region’s resources and agricultural powerhouse – has now become Britain’s beacon and pathway as it seeks its way back to the Indo-Pacific,” the AFR editorialised.

“PM seals historic UK pact,” declared The Australian in its front-page lead: “Australia is the first nation to ­secure a post-Brexit free trade deal with the UK, in a historic breakthrough sealed by Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson that is set to kickstart a new era in Britain’s global trade ­relations.” And bouncing back from his gloom of three days earlier, Sheridan said the FTA was “a triumph for Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson and an early fruit of Brexit.”

Surely it must have been Tony Abbott, working as advisor to Britain’s board of trade, who worked this magic in the Anglosphere.

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