Inward bound

Some have tried to suggest Scott Morrison has turned away from the fearful “negative globalism” mindset that shaped his foreign policy while Donald Trump was in office.

But the Australian prime minister arrives in Britain for this weekend’s G7 meeting very much a man whose first instinct remains to turn inward in a world that is reopening.

The first months of the Biden administration have thrown into sharp relief the shortcomings of the Morrison government: its insularity, its policy stagnation, its obsession with domestic politics at a time of abundant opportunity for international co-operation.

The G7 meeting will mark Morrison and Joe Biden’s first in-person meeting as the leaders of their respective countries.

The gulf between the two cannot be ignored.

Despite professing to hold up the United States alliance as Australia’s most important relationship, Morrison has taken few steps towards establishing strong ties with the new US president.

In the lead-up to the summit, Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pursued an ambitious agenda. The global fight against Covid-19 was chief among the items to be hashed out, with Biden pledging to donate 500 million Pfizer vaccine doses to low-income countries through the Covax alliance. Climate change would be the other key focus.

Yet Morrison remains stubbornly fixed on his unambitious 2030 emissions reductions target for Australia, and on keeping the country’s borders slammed shut until mid-2022. His lack of interest in rejoining the world would be entirely perplexing were it not for the false boost closed borders gives Australia’s employment figures.

The frustration in all of this is that there are myriad missed opportunities for a parochial Australia as global relations thaw after the long winter of Trump and Covid-19.

The chance for closer relations with the US and other countries in our region while the China relationship remains frosty is one example. Biden’s plan for a minimum global tax rate of 15 per cent, which will be discussed at the G7 summit, is another.

For years, Australia has tried on its own to stop multinationals funnelling income out of the country and into low-tax jurisdictions. The Turnbull government’s 2017 diverted-profits tax, the so-called “Google tax”, was one such attempt to crack down. But it took until 2020 for the law to be invoked for the first time.

Tax avoidance is a global problem that needs a co-ordinated solution. As does climate change. As does the threat of the next pandemic.

Morrison was comfortable in Trump’s world. It was a place where dramatic announcements rarely translated into action, and being tough on borders was the purest sign of a leader’s strength.

In the new paradigm, this artifice has been pulled down and it is obvious to all that both Morrison, and Australia, are being left behind.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 12, 2021 as "Inward bound".

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