Opinion

Chris Wallace
A world away from Morrison

The de-ScoMofication of Australia on the world stage took a leap forward this week as the Albanese government consolidated its international relations edge over an enfeebled opposition in a series of high-level meetings in Europe.

In just over a month, the competitive advantage the Coalition held over Labor with regards to foreign, defence and security policy has completely evaporated.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has negated the cringe factor many Australians felt when former prime minister Scott Morrison, and earlier Tony Abbott, trod the world stage.

From Abbott’s “Canadia” fumble to Morrison’s top-level lying and lost-kid-in-the-international-playground demeanour, and any other number of embarrassments in between, Australia’s diminution in the eyes of the world has been excruciating.

Albanese’s adroitness on the world stage contrasts positively, too, with John Howard’s noticeably tentative first steps internationally as an incoming prime minister in 1996.

On top of his brief and with an easy confidence, Albanese – together with Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles – has credibly put Australia back in the international relations game.

This is crucial at a time of heightened and escalating international tension. And it has the collateral benefit of denying the Coalition political turf it would have assumed it owned under Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. Not that it’s incidental. Rather, it’s part of a deliberate strategy to blunt Dutton’s long suit at the outset of his opposition leadership.

You can add Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil’s name to the list of senior government figures – Albanese, Wong and Marles – who have Dutton surrounded on what he and his colleagues consider their winning territory.

O’Neil’s pre-emptive trip to Sri Lanka last week, to talk with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris, was about deepening bilateral relations as Sri Lanka “faces very difficult economic times”. It was not just transactional people-smuggling talks.

The projection of seriousness and substance on international relations and national security has been achieved without relying on macho language or imagery. This is likely a revelation to Coalition MPs who’ve existed for years on picture opportunities with tanks and torpedoes, and loose, inflammatory war talk.

This week’s overseas trip was Albanese’s third since becoming prime minister. The first was to Japan for the Quad meeting in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, United States President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The second was a bilateral meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Jakarta. This third trip was at the invitation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to attend the Madrid NATO summit.

On Monday Albanese stopped off in the United Arab Emirates to thank embassy staff and military personnel for their contribution to Australia’s work in the region. In a notably non-macho touch, he spoke of six young Afghan women who share a house in his electorate and pack food hampers for the needy as people of integrity and “great Australian citizens” in the making.

The prime minister travelled on to Madrid for the first bilateral visit to Spain by an Australian head of government. Albanese and Spanish President Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón noted shared values, including a commitment to multilateralism and the international rules-based order – of more than passing importance given Australia’s aspiration to a European Union trade deal and Spain’s ascension to the Council of the European Union presidency next year.

Then came the opportunity to participate in what was a unique NATO meeting.

Invitations to the leaders of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea – the “Asia Pacific Four” – to attend was not just to show support for NATO’s backing of Ukraine against the Russian invasion. It was also an institutional expression by NATO of its growing concern about the “no limits” Russia–China relationship and Chinese moves in the Pacific, as eastern and western hemisphere security worries converge.

Australia’s presence there, along with multiple side meetings with key NATO leaders, accelerated the global reset urgently sought by the government.

Albanese’s statement to NATO that a “mature” Australia would continue to be resolute in supporting peace and security in the Pacific and beyond, in a way distinct from the previous government, was an important moment for a country seeking relief from the odium caused by Scott Morrison’s international trickiness.

The negative perceptions to overcome included Australia as a “handbrake”, as Albanese put in, on progress in international climate negotiations – bad in itself, obviously, and also a blockage for the desired trade deal with the EU, which French President Emmanuel Macron prevented while Morrison was prime minister.

NATO members are aware of the poor defence capacity Australia has been left with after years of defence materiel purchases that have not been tied coherently into Australia’s overall defence strategy. This has left us dangerously unprepared for current security developments.

While Albanese took care of the reset at the Madrid summit, back home Defence Minister Marles reappointed three key Australian Defence Force personnel to get the benefits of continuity as he crafts an integrated way forward from the Coalition’s defence portfolio vacuum.

Marles extended the terms of the ADF chief, General Angus Campbell, the vice-chief, Vice-Admiral David Johnston, and the joint operations chief, Lieutenant-General Greg Bilton, by two years, with the expectation they can help deliver sensible interim and long-term plans on Australia’s submarine capabilities by March.

After Madrid, the prime minister travelled to Paris to bed down the relationship reset with France after the breakdown of trust caused by Morrison’s prevarication over the AUKUS submarine deal last year. The optics were great and Macron seemed genuinely pleased by the change of government.

Albanese can be well satisfied that cabinet’s foreign affairs, defence and border security quartet, him included, have had a stunningly successful opening month. This is true in substance as well as in the politics.

The high level of calm, competence and moderation on display is reassuring to Australians. In the reset the government has achieved internationally, world leaders seem reassured, too.

On return, Albanese has a different kind of reset to consider: one with crossbench MPs enraged by his unilateral decision to cut their staff numbers before he got on the plane to Europe.

That decision rebalanced the large number of additional staff Morrison awarded to crossbench MPs as his government slid into minority status back towards something more realistic relative to the staff entitlements of other MPs.

For community independents it means a cut from the additional four staff Morrison gave them to just one – this in addition to the standard four electorate staff every MP gets.

While the prime minister was on the road, Finance Minister Katy Gallagher and Treasurer Jim Chalmers between them managed the brouhaha that has consumed an entire week of domestic politics in Australia.

There are deep feelings on both sides.Teals Zali Steggall and Monique Ryan, along with new independent senator for the ACT David Pocock, publicly led the charge against the decision: Steggall stridently, Ryan with unintended sharpness and Pocock with sensitivity.

Labor hasn’t shared in public the “white-hot anger” expressed inside caucus – especially by those who before the election spent years as opposition frontbenchers and frontbench staffers, struggling to compete with entire government departments at senate estimates with perhaps one or two extra staff.

It has been a terrible turnaround in the mutually joyful atmospherics of Labor and teals tossing a catastrophically bad government out of office.

Deep public divisions between Labor and community independents, who took crucial seats off the Liberals, is a delight for the Coalition. And while Labor has formed a majority government, it’s by only two seats. They might not need the teals in the house of representatives right now but they might in the future. Why make their first substantive experience of the Albanese government such a bad one?

For their part, the community independents have reflected and mostly had some insight into the fact that they, like the government, could’ve handled things better.

Steggall came across as obnoxiously entitled. The smart but politically inexperienced Ryan feels somewhat suckered by the media. Pocock showed he has a considerable senate career ahead, as he also did a few days earlier when he suggested the Greens think of Labor’s emissions target as a floor to be built on rather than a ceiling to be bagged.

By week’s end several indies were considering sending a letter to the government with an invitation to talk, suggesting reconsideration of the decision was worthwhile and citing in support Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ report on parliament as a workplace.

For Labor, it’s a reminder that the “jaw, jaw not war, war” techniques of diplomacy – so well embodied by Albanese overseas – have great domestic applications, too. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "A world away from Morrison".

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Chris Wallace is a professor at the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra, and the author of How to Win an Election.

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