MUNGO MacCALLUM. Another week, another stuff-up. Israel and Indonesia.Nov 20, 2018
Bill Shorten and Penny Wong got it right last week: ScoMo’s pre-Wentworth thought bubble about moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem should be dead, buried and cremated.
It was always a bad idea and if there was any doubt the Indonesians have tried to put it out of its misery with the simple tactic of taking Morrison’s cherished preferential trade deal with Jakarta off the table until our leader disposes of the remains.
But Morrison prefers to keep them festering: like a dog returning to its vomit he refuses to admit that his bright idea is deceased, no longer with us, fallen off the mortal coil, an ex-parrot. In Singapore he insisted that President Joko Widodo did not make any connection between the embassy and the treaty, but Widodo didn’t have to; at the same time two of his senior ministers were telling the world that it was a game breaker, and Morrison’s own former trade minister, Steve Ciobo, admitted that there was only a 5 per cent chance the move would go ahead.
Actually if the experts have their way there is considerably less than that, but presumably Ciobo was concerned to leave his prime minister a fig leaf of respectability before the capitulation. And Morrison, being the marketer he is, appears determined to turn it into a full formal outfit – albeit one with a daggy Chinese cap.
It was still under active consideration, he claimed preposterously – there would be a decision soon – well, probably before Christmas, leaving nearly six weeks for him to devise the terms of surrender and pen a brief epitaph. And of course it has absolutely nothing to do with the Indonesians or anyone else – Shorten should not take his cue from foreigners, we will decide, etc, etc. Actually what Shorten said was the Morrison was looking stupid over the issue, a statement of the bleeding obvious, and that since we all believe the backdown is coming, Morrison should bloody well get on with it.
Another week, another stuff up. But it is more serious than that, because it is now obvious that out prime minister hasn’t got a clue about foreign affairs and is capable of doing a lot of damage if he refuses to listen to those with more experience.
Australia’s national interest is not jingoistic bluster of the kind Morrison learned in his time boosting tourism with aggressive slogans like “where the hell are you.” Foreign policy relies on negotiation, listening to ensure that unforeseen consequences – or, in this case, clearly foreseen and blindingly obvious – and ensure that they do not harm the national interest and outweigh whatever immediate domestic benefit may be envisaged.
This is why we have the department, with its vast bureaucracy and extensive diplomatic corps. Moving the embassy would please Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump (what was that about taking cues from foreigners) but infuriate our largest and most important neighbour and generally piss off just about everyone else on the globe, with the possible exception of Guatemala, which followed Trump’s preemptive move.
As soon as Morrison announced his captain’s pick all the experts were against it – some more vehemently than others, but the policy was left friendless from the start. But in the coalition party room it has been embraced as the latest episode in the interminable culture wars. Because Morrison refused to cut his losses and bunker down in the face of opposition – and not only from the dreaded foreigners, but from a majority of dinky-di Australian experts in the field – the issue is now seen as a test of strength, even of Morrison’s dwindling credibility.
And it escalated, rather than being diffused, when a second neighbouring ally, Malaysia, joined the Indonesians in warning that moving the embassy was not a good idea. Mohammad Mahathir has never been a great friend of Australia – he can often be recalcitrant, as Paul Keating memorably described him. But at the age of 93 he has had a fair amount of experience in the region, and when he said that the switch could increase the threat of terrorism he was worth listening to.
But not, apparently in Canberra: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg ignored the ball and went straight for the man, and the zealots of the right claimed that the mere fact that Mahathir was against the policy had meant that moving the embassy was now essential – a matter of national pride.
There were some sensible voices: even The Australian’s Paul Kelly broke with his fellow cardinal Greg Sheridan to label the move a disaster. And there is still time for reason and logic (not to mention economics and engineering) to prevail before the Christmas deadline Morrison has imposed. But it has led our leader into a morass of his own making as the season of political summits gets under way, leaving the lasting impression that he is more interested in currying favour with Israel and the United States than engaging with his immediate surroundings.
This may, with time and effort, be forgiven, but it will not be forgotten: he can expect to be on probation for many months, perhaps longer than his government lasts.
In Darwin with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and then with the APEC meeting in Port Moresby, Morrison has shown signs that he is refreshing his brand: the silly caps have gone, he is wearing a suit and tie, and as far as he know he has not saluted his fellow heads of government with a fair dinkum Aussie greeting of “How’re they hanging, mate?” or “Been getting any lately, cobber?” Perhaps he is just saving them for a meeting with the chief pussy grabber, Donald Trump.
But more probably the storm of ridicule over his transparently false dagginess has produced a revised marketing ploy. It might get him through to the silly season – with any luck. But at some point he will have to come to the decision. The domestic political fix would be to stand firm against the bloody foreigners. The national interest demands a back down. Distasteful and humiliating, perhaps, but it is the only half-way responsible course. Over to you, ScoMo.