We need the diplomatic skills of a ‘Chinese Morrison’

Dec 24, 2020

Tensions between China and Australia over trade and security hurt both countries. It is time that the great salesman Prime Minister Morrison went to Beijing to resolve misunderstandings.

Linda Jaivin’s cheeky novel A Most Immoral Woman concerns the woman’s alleged dalliance with George Edward Morrison. Jaivin uses intriguing chapter headings such as ‘In Which Morrison Travels To The Charing Cross of the Pacific, Lectures Kuan On The Benefits of Western Imperialism And Receives A Surprise At Journey’s End’. Morrison was of course, known as ‘Chinese Morrison’.

According to his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography by J.S. Gregory, the historical Morrison was born in Geelong and lived from 1862 to 1920. He had an adventurous life across Victorian and Edwardian eras. There were long hikes, diary writing, journalism, spear wounds. In New Guinea, more wounds in the Boxer Rebellion, graduation in medicine from Edinburgh after lack of success in Melbourne (a variation perhaps on the lawyers’ acronym FILTH: Failed In London Try HongKong) and became an adviser to the Chinese government in Peking.

Morrison had some influence on the British policy to end the opium trade from India and was an early critic of ‘Blackbirding’ in Queensland. He backed the Japanese against the Russians over Port Arthur and complained that the defeat of the second Australian conscription referendum was a victory for Catholic and female voters. His book An Australian In China, Being A Narrative of A Quiet Journey Across China To Burma was said to have ‘savoured of genius’ and established him as the expert on Chinese affairs, although he did not master the language.

A tension in politics is that those who govern and legislate make decisions that affect ordinary citizens so profoundly. Yet there is no mutual obligation involved and politicians walk away when things become too difficult. Sometimes politicians decide between life and death. When governments commit the Australian military to overseas actions, they know that lives will be lost. Our troops will suffer casualties and they will inflict them.

The Coalition of the Willing – the Anglophone trio of Bush, Blair and Howard – unleashed a devastating bombing campaign against Iraq in 2003 knowing that many children would die in Baghdad. When they pleaded that they did not realise children would die, they were lying. No-one is that stupid. Yet they had the front to call Saddam Hussain ‘the butcher of Baghdad’. They claimed that there was no viable alternative to military action. Sanctions, they said were not working or could not be given any more time to work because Iraq possessed fearsome weapons. They lied about this too.

At the time, at least one Australian made herself a human shield hoping that she could shelter and save some children. Donna Mulhearn was widely disparaged as irresponsible by politicians and media. But she was an embarrassment because she showed the politicians one course of action which they might have taken had they been brave and sincere enough. How heroic Bush, Blair and Howard would have appeared had they risked their own lives and walked into Iraq to negotiate with Saddam. A genuine peace delegation might not have worked but it was not tried.

And here today our prime minister, despite all the criticism he has endured, has a chance to prove that he can lead. He should pack a bag and go to China and show the people and the government of the vast nation, that he is a man and not a television image. He could admit he has faults and failings but plead the case for a new friendship between the countries. Such humbling would not be humiliating but would challenge his counterpart to make a similarly humane gesture of understanding.

Talks can occur at ministerial level. There can be cultural contacts but too often negotiators are handed immediate escape routes in terms of veiled threats. Discussions can be undermined by unfriendly processes such as press conferences and social media. Ping Pong Diplomacy has been destroyed by one-upmanship.

Something must change. So, go on, Mr Morrison, take that first step. You might even earn the title ‘Chinese Morrison’.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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