Challenge to Philippine presidential candidate Grace Poe. Japan resumes whaling. Vanuatu corruption claims a third of parliament. Yemeni island bans popular narcotic. By Hamish McDonald.

Turnbull’s new team changes foreign tack

Philippine presidential candidate Grace Poe reaches out to supporters.
Credit: Reuters

Malcolm Turnbull has returned from Paris to Canberra, where the business of reshaping his immediate bureaucratic back-up goes on.

Out has gone Michael Thawley, the cold warrior Tony Abbott installed as secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet; in his place comes Martin Parkinson, the head of Treasury sacked by Abbott. Out has quietly gone Abbott’s foreign policy and national security adviser Andrew Shearer. In comes Frances Adamson, who recently finished her term as ambassador in Beijing. Another old China hand, former Sydney Morning Herald journalist John Garnaut, has just joined Turnbull’s office as another speechwriter and adviser.

The changes will see a different tone in foreign policy. Thawley and Shearer were strong proponents of strengthening the trilateral strategic link with the US and Japan, encouraging Abbott’s excessive embrace of Japanese counterpart Shinzō Abe. While realists about China, Parkinson, Adamson and Garnaut will push a more nuanced engagement with Beijing, while lowering the volume on strategic ties with the other Asian nations worried about rising Chinese power.

The economic relationship with China is getting more fraught, not just with China’s slowdown causing further falls in raw-material prices, but with potentially serious jitters in its financial system. A week ago the central city of Wuhan saw mass protests in front of government offices by investors in a failed investment fund. In Hong Kong, currency speculators are getting out of the Chinese renminbi as fast as they can. Turnbull and Parkinson will be a financially literate team able to talk with the Chinese about their impossible dilemma of opening up financial markets while still controlling the results.

Constrained by the relatively small number of women in the Coalition’s parliamentary ranks, Turnbull is also using bureaucratic appointments in the cause of gender equality. Parkinson was notable for promoting more women to senior positions in Treasury, and will encourage the same from the commanding heights of the public service. Adamson is a candidate to replace Peter Varghese as secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade when he retires mid-next year. Her successor in the Beijing embassy is Jan Adams, a DFAT deputy secretary who wrapped up the free trade agreements with Japan, South Korea and China. 

Grace under fire

While on the subject of female representation, we turn to the Philippines’ May election for a new president, replacing incumbent Benigno Aquino, who is ending the single permitted six-year term.

The female candidate leading in opinion polls, Senator Grace Poe, is fighting attempts to disqualify her. This is not because Filipinos are set against having a female leader. They’ve had two in recent times, Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Rather more strangely for a country with a 10th of its population living and working overseas at any time, there is a nitpicking focus on whether she is a real Filipina.

Poe’s origins play to the often soap-operatic political culture of Manila. She was left a foundling baby on the doorstep of a church and adopted by movie star couple Fernando Poe jnr and Susan Roces. Educated in the US, she worked there as a teacher until her father’s death when she returned for a political career, winning election to the senate in 2013 aged 44.

Last month she narrowly beat a motion in an electoral tribunal to disqualify her on the grounds that as a foundling, she cannot prove she is a “natural-born Filipino” as required for a president. This week, another elections tribunal declared she had not met the 10-year residency requirement. She insists she has been back since 2005 and will appeal this.

If she’s knocked out, there’s at least one other woman among the leaders in a field of 130 candidates (mostly jokers). This is Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, 70, a distinguished former administrator, UN official and judge of the International Criminal Court.

New subs, whales

Shinzō Abe remains a difficult friend. On Monday, Japanese officials and industrialists put in a tender to build the new-generation submarines for the Royal Australian Navy, with rival bids delivered from Germany and France.

Japan is offering a version of its Sōryū-class submarine which, as the only contender now in production meeting the specifications set by the RAN, seems to be the favourite in the race.

Then on Tuesday, the government-sponsored Japanese whaling fleet set off from Shimonoseki, in Abe’s electorate, to resume its yearly hunt in the Southern Ocean. A ruling by the International Court of Justice last year had stopped the hunt during the previous southern hemisphere summer, and in April, a panel of the International Whaling Commission declared Japan had yet to demonstrate a need for killing whales in its so-called research program.

Now Tokyo has reduced its planned kill by two-thirds, to 333 minke whales, which it believes will conform to the ICJ ruling. During the next 12 years, this will total 4000 whales killed, all for dubious “research” and a whale meat stockpile for customers with little choice, in schools and prisons.

Carcasses at arm’s length

There’s been a victory for rule of law, perhaps only temporary, in Vanuatu, ending a saga that started when a court convicted 14 government members of the Pacific nation’s parliament for bribery and sentenced them to jail.

They turned to the acting president, speaker of the parliament Marcellino Pipite, for a pardon. As he was one of the convicts himself, he obliged.

On his return to Port Vila, President Baldwin Lonsdale cancelled the pardons. With their appeals dismissed the 14 MPs were then obliged to resign, leaving the parliament depleted by a third of its members. Opposition leader Ham Lini sought a recall of parliament (it has only sat once this year) so he could try to form a new government, but Lonsdale has opted to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections. Prime Minister Sato Kilman stays in office as caretaker, and will no doubt be declaring he knew nothing about the activities of his former deputy prime minister, Moana Carcasses, convicted for splashing 35 million vatu ($452,000) among fellow MPs. It remains to be seen whether Vanuatu’s politics switch from a merry-go-round of scandals, no-confidence votes and murky majority formation.

Banning the kat among the citizens

With swaths of the Middle East turned to mayhem by fanatics, many fired up on amphetamines it now turns out, who can blame the citizens of war-torn Yemen for turning to a tranquillising drug themselves?

This is the mildly narcotic leaf called kat, grown in north-east Africa and Arabia, and chewed by an estimated 80 per cent of Yemeni men and 60 per cent of women.

With the country now in the middle of a civil war, with interventions by Iran and the Arab powers, some authorities have seen it as the time to crack down on the habit, to promote better health, work habits, and household savings. Last month, Saeed Ba Huqaiba, governor of Socotra island, banned kat and burnt a two-tonne cargo of seized kat leaves. The effect on local law and order is not yet clear.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2015 as "Turnbull’s new team changes foreign tack". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.