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Malcolm Turnbull’s relationship with the Indonesian president is being used to shore up free trade negotiations as Scott Morrison hopes to convey stability abroad. By Karen Middleton.

Turnbull used to head off regional distrust

Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested in parliament this week that appointing his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull to represent Australia at the upcoming Our Ocean, Our Legacy conference in Bali was an idea that came from Indonesian president Joko Widodo.

Morrison said on Wednesday that when he met the president in Bogor on August 31, a week after becoming prime minister, Widodo indicated “that the former prime minister had expressed his willingness to attend that summit”.

“We discussed the issue, President Widodo and I, and we thought it would be a good opportunity if the former prime minister were able to attend that summit, given their very strong, close working relationship,” Morrison said.

The Saturday Paper has confirmed it was another three weeks before Morrison wrote to Turnbull, on September 20, asking him to represent Australia at the summit.

As Morrison’s reported conversation with Widodo suggests, Turnbull is understood to have previously been considering attending the summit as prime minister but had not confirmed.

Morrison made another request in his September 20 letter, appealing for the services of the recently removed prime minister – who was by then on an extended holiday in New York – to represent Australia four days later, on September 24, at the first meeting of the new international High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy.

The meeting in New York coincided with the yearly leaders’ week at the United Nations, to which Morrison had sent the new foreign minister, Marise Payne. But he asked Turnbull to attend the oceans panel.

Before Turnbull lost the prime ministership, the Norwegian government had invited him to join the panel, which it had established, and Morrison asked in his letter if he would fulfil that commitment and if he would attend the Bali conference on October 29 and 30 on Australia’s behalf.

Separately, Morrison also asked if Turnbull would represent Australia at another event in New York associated with UN leaders’ week on September 26, promoting the “tobacco-free finance pledge”, which involves 85 global corporations vowing not to invest in the tobacco industry.

Turnbull’s presence at these events allows Australia to promote a business-as-usual image on the world stage in the wake of its fourth sudden midterm change of prime minister in eight years, a change that has again left other countries perplexed.

Turnbull accepted the invitation to represent Australia in Bali. However the trip has angered his Liberal Party critics, who are suggesting his non-parliamentary status and refusal ahead of last weekend’s Wentworth byelection to campaign actively for the Liberal candidate, Dave Sharma, mean he does not deserve what they are calling a reward.

The Saturday Paper has confirmed that Turnbull will not be paid to attend any of the three events, although the federal government will cover travel costs for the Bali trip.

This week, a spokesperson for the Indonesian embassy told The Saturday Paper that the decision on who to send to the summit was Australia’s alone.

“The invitation was to the government, not in a personal capacity,” the spokesperson said.

“If the former prime minister comes to the oceans conference it will be because the Australian government has asked him.”

In parliament, Morrison defended the decision, which he said was taken “weeks and weeks ago”.

“I will always put the diplomatic and national interest of Australia ahead of any other considerations,” he said on Wednesday. “What I will do is act in the national interest of Australia, and I look forward to the former prime minister being able to represent us on that occasion.”

Under Labor questioning, Morrison was forced to deny a report in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph that following the Liberal backlash he was “done with” Turnbull and may dump him as envoy to the Bali conference. He said the report was false.

Widodo and Turnbull became good friends in the three years of Turnbull’s prime ministership and Widodo was one of the political figures who contacted him after he was ousted to express condolences, confusion and concern.

In light of that close relationship, Morrison deciding to rescind the Turnbull invitation and send someone else of lesser status instead could be seen as a snub to Widodo. And given that relations with Indonesia were tested last week after Morrison announced a sudden shift in Australia’s Middle East policy and one on which Indonesia has a strongly divergent view, the prime minister can’t afford that.

So, rather than the government doing Turnbull a favour, it appears to be the other way around.

Morrison’s sudden announcement on Tuesday last week that he was considering moving Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to recognise it as Israel’s capital, rippled across the world, being an issue at the heart of longstanding unrest between the Israeli and Palestinian people, and a major sticking point in the peace process.

Indonesia opposes such a move and is close to the Palestinian Authority, whose foreign minister was visiting Jakarta as Morrison made his announcement.

The move prompted a terse series of WhatsApp messages – subsequently leaked – from Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to her Australian counterpart, Marise Payne, expressing dismay and asking unsuccessfully if the announcement could at least be delayed until her Palestinian guest departed.

In Bali, Turnbull will hold a sideline meeting with Widodo, where the former prime minister is expected to seek assurances from his friend that negotiations on a free trade agreement will continue to progress in the wake of the Jerusalem disagreement.

Labor and the Greens have condemned Morrison’s announcement as driven by domestic politics, given it was made ahead of the byelection in Turnbull’s old seat of Wentworth, which has the highest proportion of Jewish voters of all Australian electorates, and on the recommendation of Liberal candidate Sharma, formerly Australia’s ambassador to Israel. Morrison denied a link to Wentworth, which the Liberal Party lost to independent Kerryn Phelps.

But in Senate estimates hearings this week, under questioning from shadow foreign minister Penny Wong, Marise Payne said she first discussed the possible embassy move with the prime minister when he phoned her on Sunday of last week, the day before some media were briefed and two days before it was announced.

Department of Foreign Affairs secretary, Frances Adamson, confirmed her department’s advice had not been sought before the embassy decision was taken.

Adamson was asked if she still held the view, expressed in June, that the United States’ decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem earlier this year was unhelpful.

“It remains my view that the peace process is very difficult and that the embassy move has not assisted the peace process,” Adamson said.

She told the Senate committee on Thursday that she first became aware at lunchtime the day before the announcement that the prime minister was considering a similar move.

Advice from Australia’s security agencies provided in the wake of the US move – and reiterated last week – was that it would pose a security risk, including to Australian diplomats in the Middle East.

In a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday, Australian Defence Force chief, General Angus Campbell, said military chiefs had found out after the media were briefed. Pressed by Labor on whether he would prefer to be notified in advance, Campbell eventually said: “Yes, senator.”

At the same time as Campbell was fielding questions on the issue in Parliament House, former foreign minister Julie Bishop was down the hill at the Hyatt Hotel, addressing the Women in National Security conference organised by the Australian National University’s national security college.

Speaking on “the future of power”, Bishop took issue with “some leaders who see an opportunity for political gain by embracing populist stances”.

“This is a very complex issue for politicians because governments want their policies to be supported,” Bishop said. “Governments need to be popular because in a democracy you need the voters to elect you. But we must question whether policies that are superficially attractive to sections of the community actually have any long-term benefits or are they in fact detrimental? And history has shown that they are.”

She listed protectionism, nationalism, industry subsidisation and a growing welfare state and said there were “examples close to home”, nominating the Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Sally McManus, as a proponent of such.

But her speech was widely interpreted as also being a message to her own side about making politically expedient decisions while ignoring the broader implications.

Describing what she called “a crisis in democracy” across the world, Bishop questioned the basis upon which “those in power” were making decisions.

“This is where the future of power becomes critical because leaders must be challenged: are these policies, are your actions for the longer-term benefit of your citizens and your nation, or are they for short-term political gain?”

Bishop referenced the issue of asylum-seeker policy and what she called “the greatest public policy failure in recent times” – Labor’s easing of border protection policies upon taking government in 2007, leading to 52,000 asylum seekers heading for Australia and ending up in offshore detention centres and at least 1200 drowning at sea.

She said the current government was still dealing with the consequences.

A Senate committee was told this week that 11 children had been transferred from Nauru to Australia on Monday for medical treatment and that 52 remained, of whom 13 had parents who had been given adverse security assessments by the US. It was unclear how their status would be resolved.

This week, Morrison rejected a proposed Labor compromise that would see some of the refugee and asylum-seeker children held with their families on Nauru transferred to New Zealand, in line with a longstanding offer from the latter to take them.

Last week, also ahead of the Wentworth byelection, he said unexpectedly that he was prepared to reopen consideration of the offer if Labor would support existing proposed government legislation to prevent them – or any others who had been previously held in offshore detention – from ever being able to then travel freely to Australia as citizens of their new countries.

The plight of refugees and asylum seekers rated highly among voters in the economically conservative but socially liberal seat of Wentworth.

This week, Labor’s shadow immigration minister Shayne Neumann wrote to Immigration Minister David Coleman proposing conditional support.

The proposal would narrow the scope of the legislation so it applied only to those going to New Zealand and reflected the conditions of the agreement reached with the US to take 1200 refugees. Neumann’s letter said the existing legislation was “ridiculous overreach” and the compromise would prevent the transferees moving to Australia but would get them off Nauru immediately.

But two days after the Wentworth byelection, now set to send Morrison into minority government, he said he would not “horsetrade” and rejected Labor’s proposal outright.

New Zealand has already raised concerns about creating “second-class citizens”.

In her speech, Julie Bishop – who this week received a special award for leadership from the US government – broadened her message beyond just her Labor opponents.

“Consequences, consequences,” the former foreign minister said. “Leaders and decision-makers must have regard to the consequences – inevitable or unwitting consequences – and be aware that the consequences will occur as a result of your decisions.”

There was no missing what she meant.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "Turnbull used to head off regional distrust". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.