Morrison pitching babies into hot bathwater

Scott Morrison is a naturally cautious, if ruthless, politician who is not prime minister by accident. Almost every significant step in his career has been carefully — mostly successfully — gamed with close political colleagues.

He’s obsessively secretive, of course, so no one expects he will explain as he goes alone. Still, his worst enemies on either side of politics accord him the respect of thinking that he knows what he is doing, and expecting that he has thought it through with care.

Damned if I know, however, what he is expecting to gain, either in the domestic or the international sphere, by his play on China. Just why did he take up the gibe of an unimportant middle-level Chinese bureaucrat about the involvement of some Australians in Afghan war crimes? Leave aside any offensiveness, and intention to offend, and discard the fact that the cartoon, showing Australian soldiers slitting an Afghan’s baby’s throat, appears on a government website. The preconditions existed, perhaps, for any proud Australian to be provoked.

But prime ministers choose when, and by whom, they will be provoked, particularly when it is clear that an official reaction of some sort is expected. Not necessarily from a prime minister, of course. Or even from a foreign minister, given that the insult came from a pipsqueak, would-be tiger or not. An angry formal note from a minor diplomat at the embassy — not the ambassador — would probably have been appropriate.

Morrison has been in high level politics for more than a decade, and has been insulted by experts. No doubt he loves the country he leads — though his career has been full of occasions in which he has shown himself very careless of its reputation. But he has never been accused of being an emotional, hand-on-the-heart Tennessee-type who loses it when someone spits on the flag or disrespects the military. There is absolutely nothing spontaneous or out of control about any political anger he confects. His reaction to the provocation was deliberate and intentional. He knew he was responding in a predictable way to a stimulus applied for just that effect.

 He could not have been unconscious of the likelihood that a furious response, particularly at his level, could only aggravate serious tensions that some, at least, were trying to cool down. He must have considered the possibility — even the probability — that the ratcheting up of hostilities would lead to a widening of the categories of goods now facing discrimination from Chinese markets. He would have known that the damnable thing about that sort of retaliation  was that the form the penalty would take was out of Australian control. He could not even expect it to be proportionate to any rage expressed.

Beyond that, of course, he knew that China was pitching the ball right at a tender wound. The implication of the gibe — that the murder of innocent Afghans had been conscious Australian policy — was false and, to many people, including thousands of ADF veterans of Afghanistan, offensively so.

 But the sore point was that Australia had just completed, and published to the world, a report showing credible evidence that some Australian soldiers had murdered Afghan civilians. It may be a tribute to our open society — and a rebuke to China’s closed one — that the allegations, facing further investigation, were now on the public record. But it made Australia vulnerable. Many an Australian cartoonist — indeed many an Australian politician — has, over the years, extrapolated from an incident far more hurtful generalisations than in the Chinese tweet.

Usually an over-reaction of this sort — often with trade penalties, or some terrorism  — would follow some alleged insult to Islam, criticism of the personality of a Malaysian prime minister, or the deliberate humiliation of a PNG prime minister by a Border Force official. That would usually cause our politicians to tell the “victim” to grow up, or take a pill or, ruefully, remark that being pilloried and mocked was part and parcel of Australian life, only occasionally shared with foreigners.

Morrison is not usually reckless or crazy-brave. One has to assume that he had considered the consequences of any sort of Australian response, including one by him. He is simply not impulsive, in the manner that Tony Abbott was when he wondered aloud about an Australian invasion of Ukraine after the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner with Australians on board. Nor is he given to applying the onion, in the manner of a Bob Hawke, after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

He may well understand the attraction, to Cronulla and RSL types, of ostentatious clutching of the heart and the flag when we can pretend the honour of the nation has been impugned. But that can be managed without intent to damage the Australian economy, or to portray us as some victim.

Even for domestic consumption, and allowing for his patriotic fury that the Chinese tweet had “gone too far”, he had just been through a difficult domestic balancing exercise over the Brereton report discussing the war crimes. He warned the nation the report would be very disturbing, confronting and damaging. He told the ADF through the chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell that he expected a searching examination of officer responsibility as well as criminal investigations and prosecutions against the small number of non-commissioned soldiers actually accused of murder.

He had to arrange the disappearance of himself and any relevant ministers while the ADF had a bucket of shit poured over it. He then had to carefully monitor the media, especially the Murdoch tabloids, for any popular reaction, particularly within the wider defence community, or even among the many special force soldiers who had never been accused of anything.

A pathetically loyal media faithfully reports that some other nations have noticed that Australia is being bullied by China, with the implication that they care deeply about it. Some leaders have suggested that they might buy our wine, or perhaps look over our barley or our lobsters, as a gesture of solidarity. No doubt some will speak approvingly of plucky Scott Morrison putting his finger in the Chinese dyke. Such gestures are as nothing compared with the real consequences of his actions.

Perhaps (I’m giving 1000-1 against this) the Chinese will realise they have horribly overstretched. They may give in and apologise for everything back to the invasion of Tibet. Perhaps some China-sized new customer will sign one of those terribly effective free-trade agreements to sop up our excess production. This could make Morrison seem the great statesman. In the real world, however, it would be interesting to see if there’s a “good” outweighing the loss of the 10 per cent of our GDP that our China relationship is worth in a typical year. That’s bigger than the damage done to our economy this year by the coronavirus.

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

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