Australia can’t much influence Trump, or Hong Kong or Boris. The more reason he should be working on what he can change
Nobody could suggest that Scott Morrison has had a completely easy ride in getting to Kirribilli House – the modern-day equivalent of the Lodge – or in getting to stay there once he climbed to the top of the greasy pole. But he may come to think them halcyon days compared with the uncertainties and pressures facing him over the year ahead.
Making the challenge more difficult is that many of the events likely to be most significant in determining his place in history are beyond his control. His thoughts and his prayers have been of no effect in breaking the drought, or in stopping bushfires of a frequency and intensity that the nation has rarely, if ever known.
A redoubling of government propaganda about the achievement of a budget surplus for the year ending on June 30,2020, reminds us that significant sections of the economy, particularly of consumer spending are in poor health, and, if the long-promised surge in wages and employment does not occur soon, the result may not be achieved. And that – at least if he and the Treasurer maintain a surplus fetish which puts the government’s bottom line ahead of the health of the economy – both reduces his capacity to throw money at any fresh crises which come to hand or to initiate any reforms which have as their first aim improvement in public administration rather than mere cost cutting.
The United States will go to an election in November, and the result cannot be guaranteed, although the likelihood is that president Trump will be re-elected. Before that Trump faces the uncertainties, such as they are, of having been impeached and having to be tried in the US Senate. It is virtually impossible that Republican senators would find him guilty – more than a third of them would have to vote against the party’s standard bearer for that to occur – but Trump’s situation is embarrassing for him (as well as almost everyone watching) and his conduct in resisting impeachment has become more and more erratic.
He may try to seize the initiative by portraying himself as the victim of a Democrat or deep state conspiracy, or perhaps he can foment, as he sometimes seems to threaten, a new civil war or rebellion by his followers. Or he may so discredit himself that even if he formally survives, he becomes a lame duck and not a candidate for re-election as a Republican. It is by no means clear that he calculates the best interests of the United States in deciding what to do.
The essential crime with which Trump is accused involves an allegation that he stood over the Ukraine government by threatening to withhold aid until they began digging dirt for him on Joe Biden, a potential Democrat candidate and former vice-president. In this, it is said, he was acting in his own personal or political interests, rather than in the best interests of his country. That is probably so. Yet in the American republican system, a president is a virtual king, albeit one of a limited term. His powers are not absolute – indeed there is a complicated set of checks and balances – but he cannot be described as a strictly constitutional monarch in the sense that the Queen (or, strictly, our governor-general) is. Quite apart from the fact that Republicans have been drawing up a constitutional argument denying traditional limits on executive power, it is not entirely clear that diplomacy – a typical prerogative of kings – is entirely mechanical, with a president acting, as it were, merely as a cypher for what he perceived to be the national interest. Trump would not be the first American president to regard as being in the national interest anything that promoted his own political fortunes.
This would be a merely academic argument from an Australian point of view were it not for the fact that Trump has a history of asking foreign leaders for personal and political favours, unconstrained by any sense of propriety. That is, indeed, what he is accused of. Scott Morrison has shown himself able to be dazzled by his propinquity, sympathetic to his political aims, and close to the bizarre doctrines of the supposedly Christian cult which seems to hold Trump in its thrall. Indeed Morrison was duchessed into promising Trump an Australian investigation into information given our (then) British high commissioner, Alexander Downer, passed to Australia, and then to America, about Russian interest in the 2016 presidential campaign. That report was said to have confirmed the FBI in their view that theirs ought to be a formal inquiry — an inquiry that Trump has been trying to discredit as a partisan stitch-up. [While it is difficult to criticise Downer for passing on the gossip, it must be recorded that Downer himself has strange notions of diplomatic proprieties – in, for example, openly campaigning for the Conservatives at this month’s United Kingdom election. Perhaps he wants, as did his father Alec, himself a former higher commissioner, membership of the House of Lords from a grateful Boris Johnson.]
An Australian prime minister is entitled to form an opinion about which candidate for the American presidency best suits Australian interests, and perhaps to give some discreet help. But discretion is the key, as John Howard discovered when he openly sniped at Barack Obama, the Democrat candidate, in the leadup to the 2008 election campaign. As it turned out, Obama beat John McCain, the ultimate Republican standard bearer (Howard’s interventions were more of supporting the Bush administration rather than McCain himself) and Howard’s attacks did Australia (or Howard himself) little good with the new administration. If Morrison has any sense, he will try desperately to avoid any entanglement with the Trump campaign. One can be reasonably sure that his help will be requested.
But much more than relations with our great and powerful friend are in the balance next year. There is the relationship with China. This now embraces open criticism of China’s brutal treatment of its Uighur minority by Australians, as well as sabre-rattling more or less on behalf of the US over the freedom of the South China Sea, the projection of American and Chinese power in South East Asia and the Pacific, as well as evidence of intensive Chinese espionage on Australia (increasingly matching ours on them). One could expect that some of the differences would rattle along over the year without much happening, other than some gestures by both sides in the US-Chinese trade war, with China continuing to buy raw materials from us, even as it expresses annoyance at some of our more bellicose politicians.
But it seems very likely that the current stand-off between citizens of Hong Kong and the administration in Beijing – already more than six months old – will come to a head, quite possibly a very violent one, in the year ahead. Those involved in the protests seem to be continuing with a certain fatalism, conscious that if the “rebellion” is put down, those with any sort of organisational role can expect neither justice not mercy. The fear is, indeed, that the development of any compromise – supposedly designed to save the “face” of those who miscalculated popular resistance to plans to further integrate Hong Kong into the Chinese mainstream – won’t work with people unconcerned about public relations. Experience suggests that when China is acting in what its leaders believe to be its best interests, they are rarely constrained by international opinion – or by sights of blood on the streets. Australia has very little capacity to affect the direction or the outcome of the Hong Kong protests. It can be taken that our diplomacy has been strongly focused on protecting the rights of Hong Kong citizens in a semi-autonomous zone, albeit one definitely inside Beijing’s orbit. We are not so much adopting the demonstrators’ grievances so much as insisting on the rights to freedom of speech, of association, assembly and demonstration.
We have also expressed concern about China’s actions against the Uighurs, if hardly at a volume loud enough to threaten commercial relationships. But a resort to serious violence in Hong Kong would almost certainly poison Chinese-Australian relations to the point that China would seek to put us in our place, commercially as well as diplomatically, for interfering in China’s internal affairs.
Next month Morrison goes to India, with significant trade hopes, including over coal, in mind. Australia has been soft-pedalling its response to India’s interventions in Kashmir, or its legislative changes to immigration and nationality laws in a way that works to the disadvantage of Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The new laws make it easier for people of Hindu, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh background to become naturalised, while not extending the same new rights to Muslims. Ostensibly, this is because it can be assumed that Muslims are not repressed or discriminated against on the grounds of religion in these three Muslim states. Sure?
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, leads an avowedly Hindu Nationalist Party, and his moves, as with those in Kashmir, seem focused on pursuing a Hindu-majority anti-Muslim agenda that threatens India’s status as a secular republic. At state and federal level, Hindu Nationalists have become more and more focused on emotive religion-based issues as a distraction from criticism of official corruption and slowing economic growth. Even before a bloody and senseless Partition, India’s political leaders, such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, argued for a secular state, one that prohibited discrimination on the ground of religion, caste or race. The direction in which India is now going increases the risk of communal violence, including in disputes about mosques and Hindu temples, and inflamed, rather than reduced tensions within the neighbourhood.
The issue has received far too little publicity in Australia, and, no doubt, many of those who hope for a much bigger trade relationship between the two nations would prefer that the issue be ignored, or downplayed, in much the same way successive Australian governments have sought to reduce tensions over human rights abuse in China by confining them to a “Dialogue” – separate from other issues. But we cannot afford to be too detached, if only because progress towards confessional discrimination and human rights abuses is a threat to the peace of our neighbourhood, and engages the rights and interests of hundreds of thousands of Australians of sub-continental descent, including increasing the risk of terrorism here. Moreover, India may not see its colonial history in the same terms Australia does, but our political and constitutional systems have too much in common for the matter to be avoided as too difficult. Morrison’s capacity to firmly raise the issue, if with some tact, represents a significant challenge to any claim to statesmanship.
Boris Johnson has long held out the revivification of old British Commonwealth trade links, including a free trade pact with Australia as a part of his plans for a post-European Community Britain. If the “crimson ties of kinship” count for anything in terms of trade access, well and good, but Australia will have to do a lot of hard work to much increase the trading relationship. A lot has changed since Britain dumped up nearly 50 years ago. We trade in different marketplaces. It is not as yet clear how much the divorce will reduce British access to European markets (or vice versa). And there will be other countries seeking, in competition with us, to take advantage of such improved terms of trade, if any, that a “free trade” agreement brings.
It is no coincidence that at a time when Australia needs some greater influence in the world, our diplomatic standing and reputation as a good global citizen are at new lows, particularly because of our conduct in climate change negotiations. Even after very strong criticism of the inadequacy of Australian policies, in the context of demands that he return from Hawaii during the bushfire crisis, Morrison made clear that there would be no significant change to our policies. Even if he is not a denier (as many in his government are) he has seemed impervious to scientific conclusions about how change is already having a profound effect on our environment, with further changes now inevitable and destined to damage Australia more than any other part of the world. His insistence, moreover, on seeing meaningful responses to change that is already happening as inevitably detrimental to our economy if Australia goes at a pace faster than others ignores the opportunities caused by quick adaptation to a new post carbon economy.
At home, meanwhile, Morrison is not much preoccupied with health, welfare and education issues, while devoting inordinate time to proposed legislation supposed to deal with a problem that is more one of perception than reality – discrimination against religion. The curious thing is that the issue seems more designed to cause splits inside his own party than it is to divide the opposition or the wider community. It will be a bruising debate, seems unlikely to get a positive outcome, and, even if it does may not have the assent of silent Australians.
By the end of next year, Morrison will be almost halfway through his term, and wondering how he can frame a pitch for re-election beyond, he hopes, the obvious hopelessness of the opposition. He has probably already milked the Budget surplus, for what it is worth, at the last election, and, so far, the evidence of a booming economy of jobs and growth is too patchy to be a significant prop. Morrison needs some achievements and results.
He’s spending too much time looking backwards and merely reacting to circumstance, and too much time focused on big lobbies promoting outcomes which do not advance the interest of silent Australians. And is spending so little time announcing his plans, or providing a guiding narrative that he will find it difficult to claim that he has reached the destination he promised.
Back at the bridge this week, after his interrupted holiday he looked variously peeved, bored and determined to put limitations on what one could expect from him. Perhaps he figures he can benefit most from low public expectations. If so he is missing an increasing sense of urgency and lost time among restless passengers.
Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times