Opinion

Richard Cooke
The Facebook Uncle Caucus in the Coalition

As Joe Biden prepared to take office as the 46th president of the United States, promising to “restore the soul of America”, his mission statement found an echo in Australia. The language was less portentous, and the crowd more mundane. But in a speech to the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese found a local variation on the theme. According to Albanese, Trumpism had tarnished not only the former US administration, but the current Commonwealth government as well.

The result had damaged the Australian national interest. “Scott Morrison went too far – partly out of his affinity with Donald Trump, partly because of the political constituency they share,” the Labor leader said. “There is no doubt Mr Morrison put this affinity and his political interests first.” He said Morrison had pursued an improper diplomatic relationship, and also let a Trumpist rump take hold in the Coalition. While the US alliance was of paramount importance, it had to be between equal partners, and the Australian prime minister had failed to keep up his end.

Albanese outlined how Morrison had gone beyond the stage-managed environs of diplomatic events. He had, in September 2019, lent his support to what was effectively a Trump campaign rally stop at a box factory in Ohio. There, alongside Australian billionaire Anthony Pratt, Trump remarked that Morrison had “recently won the election in Australia ... It was supposed to be close and he blew them away because he believes a lot of the same things I believe, I guess.” Sixteen months later, when rioters had stormed the US Capitol building, Morrison’s gentle admonishments were more headmasterly than statesmanlike: he was only able to say the outgoing president’s actions were “very disappointing”.

This soft-pedalling is in contrast even to high-ranking former and current Republicans. On the floor of the US senate, on the eve of an impeachment trial, the most senior Republican senator, Mitch McConnell, said that the “mob was fed lies” and “provoked by the president and other powerful people”. He urged a conscience vote on the charge of “incitement of insurrection”. Former US attorney-general Bill Barr, who until recently was among Trump’s most intimate allies, said his once-boss “precipitated” the Capitol Hill riots.

In the past, Morrison has explained away his reluctance to criticise Trump as a form of diplomacy. “It’s my job as prime minister to have very good relationships with all our key partners and allies,” he told Karl Stefanovic on the Today show in June last year. “… It’s not my job as prime minister to provide political or other commentary on other leaders around the world, and they tend not to do it in relation to Australia.” Morrison took the same line in response to Albanese’s fresh allegation this week – the prime minister said his actions were about alliance maintenance.

“If people are going to have a crack at me because I worked with the president of the United States, well, I think that reflects more on them than me,” Morrison told 2GB’s Ray Hadley on Wednesday, just hours after the Labor leader’s speech. He had less to say about Albanese’s charges of neglect, particularly the prime minister’s failure to meet senior Democrats on his tour of the US. While there will be State Department continuity between the Biden and Obama administrations – and thus some familiarity for Australian diplomats – this country now finds itself increasingly at a distance from our closest ally and the rest of the world, on climate politics in particular.

Morrison did not speak to the domestic prong of Albanese’s attack. Rather than rebuking Trump’s attempts to confound the election result, the Australian prime minister broke with other world leaders – including other US allies, such as Canada and Britain – by failing to disavow President Trump’s lengthy refusal to concede defeat. The Labor leader made it clear why: “[Morrison] remains afraid of the far-right extremist fringe dwellers who make up the bedrock of his personal support – and who he cultivates through the avatars of Trumpists and conspiracy theorists like Craig Kelly and George Christensen.”

Kelly and Christensen form a kind of Facebook Uncle Caucus within the Coalition, occupying strong social media presences that draw on Trumpian themes. By most measures, Kelly is the top-performing Australian politician on Facebook and, like the former US president, he has endorsed a series of unproven treatments for Covid-19. He has also questioned the wide application of a vaccine approved by the Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration. Asked by a Nine News political reporter whether he would vaccinate his own child, Kelly responded that “on the evidence I have seen, I don’t think there’s any necessity”. Both Kelly and Christensen have backed variations on Trump’s claim that the 2020 US presidential election was “stolen”.

Despite repeated requests to disavow or condemn these sentiments, Scott Morrison has declined, citing a commitment to “free speech”. Michael McCormack, when installed as acting prime minister, followed suit. “I’m not in favour of censorship,” the Nationals leader said. “I’m a former newspaper editor. I don’t believe in censorship – you’ve also got to be sensible about what you put online. I always am.” Even Health Minister Greg Hunt had been unable to challenge his colleagues’ conspiratorial freelancing, offering only that he would “urge everyone to listen carefully to the advice of the Australian medical regulators and Australian government medical advisers”.

Along with these “avatars of Trumpists and conspiracy theorists”, Albanese’s speech also admonished Nationals senator Matt Canavan for proposing an iron ore levy on exports to China, and Sydney Liberal Dave Sharma for his “astonishing suggestion that Australia should recruit Russia for the perceived task of China containment”. These populist and Trumpist sentiments were more than irresponsible; they were potentially dangerous. “Mr Morrison wants to ride this tiger because he thinks he’s on a political winner,” Albanese remarked, “but we have seen this month that the longer you ride it, the harder it is to dismount.”

The purpose of Albanese’s speech was twofold: to display his party’s credentials in dealing with the incoming Biden administration, while also trying to draw energy from a centre-left election win in the US. But the occasion also marks the end of a period of constructive and often quiet opposition for Albanese. Overall, the Covid-19 pandemic has been favourable for political incumbents, especially those who managed the scenario ably, and few nations have fared better than Australia. Joe Biden himself is said to be “very interested” in the antipodean model of dealing with the virus. Excessive criticism of Morrison was, until now, viewed as a tactical error, but as vaccine rollouts begin, and leadership ructions threaten, Albanese has found his voice.

With the outside possibility of a federal election in 2021 – which would have to be called by May – Labor has had little time to adopt a fighting posture. The opposition’s positioning is subtle, perhaps too subtle. It wants to argue the Morrison government successfully fought off the coronavirus simply by taking the credit from others: outsourcing administration of the health response to the states, and the generation of federal policy (such as wage subsidies) to the Labor Party. Meanwhile, according to former deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, Morrison has “buggered up everything he’s responsible for. Aged care. The failed COVID app. Our borders.”

Together, these lines of attack show how the ALP will differentiate itself leading into a possible election: responsibility. Speaking on 2GB, Albanese said his leadership stood in “stark contrast” to Morrison’s failure to condemn Trump. He reiterated that he was the best person to lead Labor to a federal victory and dismissed polling, commissioned by the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, that showed the ALP losing two coalmining-heavy former heartland seats in the Hunter Valley.

Scott Morrison, meanwhile, has already urged Joe Biden to visit Australia. (Donald Trump made no official visit.) Asia-Pacific diplomacy will be one of the few areas of continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations. During his presidency, Trump awarded Scott Morrison the highest US military honour, the Legion of Merit, not as a reward for praise, but to help cement an “Indo-Pacific” pact allied against Chinese interests: the only other world leaders so honoured were the Japanese prime minister at the time, Shinzō Abe, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This effort will continue. When asked if he expected Biden to back Australia on China trade matters, Morrison told reporters, “I expect there would be a continuation of those policy settings that have so favoured the Australian alliance.” Incoming State Department officials have underscored these sentiments. The Biden administration is likely to re-emphasise and further challenge China’s human rights record in Hong Kong and Xinjiang province, and will expect international assistance. Human rights have not lately been Australia’s strong suit, but changed leaders mean changed circumstances.

Paul Bongiorno is on leave and will return on February 6.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "The Facebook Uncle Caucus in the Coalition".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.