The Prime Minister’s speech ‘In our interest’ to the Lowry Institute is curious, befuddled, and a little disturbing. As is normal with such presentations, it was peppered with political bromides and Morrison did not drill deeply into the details. The tips of much bigger and weightier conceptual massifs were detectable through the fog of self-laudatory political statements. The PM faces difficult a difficult task balancing Australia’s interest in pleasing both China and the US, his efforts to straddle these stools resulted in him employing specious values to cover raw self-interest.
There was a definite nationalist theme throughout. It is the sovereign nation state that matters. He says, uncontroversially, Australia’s freedom ‘depends on our dedication to national sovereignty’. This was demonstrated when previous generations facing troubled times, in the First and Second World Wars, found that ‘key to progress was individual, like-minded sovereign nations acting together with enlightened self-interest.’ He concludes, therefore, that, ‘championing the common interest of sovereignty and independence as the natural antidote to any possible threat of regional hegemony’.
When the political verbiage is swept away, it is a nationalistic, somewhat poorly disguised, Australia first principle that drives his foreign and security policy.
Morrison talks of Australia under his leadership bringing ‘clear objectives and enduring values to our international engagement’. He enunciates these; freedom of thought and expression, freedom of exchange, open markets, and capital, and freedom from ‘from oppression and coercion, freedom of choice’. Admirable, but his foreign policy objectives as set out in this speech belie any genuine or clear commitment to these principles.
Apparently, in Morrison’s assessment, India is a ‘land of durable institutions and shared values’, a ‘natural partner for Australia’. However according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International India falls well short when measured against Morrison’s ‘enduring values’. India undoubtedly faces huge economic, political, religious, and cultural challenges and many of its problems are the legacies of colonialism. That said, it is difficult not to see India’s actions in Kashmir as involving serious and deliberate human rights violations and as an especially serious example of religious intolerance towards Muslims. Australia has to have close working relations with India in the areas of trade and security cooperation, but to dress the relationship up as one of kindred spirits is not necessary or accurate.
Similarly, the Prime Minister quite accurately identifies Vietnam as ‘a nation of real consequence in our region’ and boasts that the government ‘elevated our relationship to a strategic partnership’ last year. Again, as a matter of pragmatic foreign and security policy this is a justified step. However, it is not an instance of the government following any ‘enduring values’. HRW assesses that ‘Vietnam’s human rights record remains dire in all area’. It is a state with an autocratic one-party regime where basic rights ‘including freedom of speech, opinion, press, association, and religion, are restricted’.
Morrison set out in more detail the benefits of having China as Australia’s ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partner’. Particular emphasis is placed on the size of its economy, its role as a major resources buyer, its position among the world’s top manufacturing and trading nations, and its growing military might. The Prime Minster acknowledged that China will have to play a central role in shaping the future of the global economy. He said, quite rightly in my view, that ‘Australia does not have to choose between the United States and China’.
In terms of his values, however, China does not rise to any of them. From the perspective of HRW, and all objective observers, ‘China remains a one-party authoritarian state that systemically curbs fundamental rights’. It is difficult to understand why, if Morrison’s commitment to his values as the basis of international engagement is genuine, the oppression of the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Buddhists of Tibet went unmentioned. These are some of the most egregious contemporary occasions of wide scale violations of human rights.
China represents the antithesis of the values espoused by the Prime Minister. Like the cases of India and Vietnam, only more so, Australia’s engagement with China has nothing to do with shared values but is firmly based in pragmatic self-interest.
Another of the themes of Morrison’s speech is inexplicable unless it is regarded as directed towards the Trump Administration. There seem to be unexplained contradictions among Morrison’s emphasis on the sovereign nation state as the primary actor in international affairs, the allusions in the speech to some sort of shadowy conspiracy to undermine the sovereignty of states, the need for global arrangements to regulate trade and finance, and the threat from ‘an unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy’.
He speaks of ‘international institutions’ that ‘demand conformity rather than independent cooperation on global issues’. Of a ‘negative globalism that coercively seeks to impose a mandate from an often ill-defined borderless global community’. These subversives are not identified but this is clearly Trump territory. Morrison believes ‘[O]nly a national government’ is able to ‘define its national interests’. That is embarrassingly self-evident.
However, he also sees that Australia’s interests in peace, stability and prosperity can only be effectively pursued through ‘open markets based on fair and transparent rules, but also other global standards that underpin commerce, investment and exchange’. How to resolve the tension between national sovereignty and the need for adjudication, arbitration, and mediation in the application of the global rules is not addressed. He may eschew the vaguely defined and unidentified ‘new variant of globalism that seeks to elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies’, but without international institutions possessing some authority based on treaties or conventions the systems of global rules will be chaotic.
Not wanting to step on the toes of any nation with whom Australia has important relationships, Morrison presents a flaky and inauthentic basis for his foreign and security policy. It is also clear that, in fact, Australia’s international relations under his government will continue to be pragmatic and values free.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.