Morrison could muzzle his China hawks – but he wants to be all things to all people | Katharine Murphy | Australia news
I’m reasonably sure this saying is apocryphal, but it is said there is an old Chinese curse – “may you live in interesting times” – and we are certainly living through strange and mildly surreal times. The times are interesting enough, it seems, for a member of the government of Australia to be hosting a website declaring “it is time to speak up on China’s economic infiltration of our nation”.
The MP in question is George Christensen, the Queensland National. It’s no great insight to observe George blows hard. George talks a big game, and here he is, talking a big game on the reddest, hottest, political issue of the moment – Australia’s fraying relationship with our largest trading partner. George has given the matter some reflection, and he thinks “we can keep giving in to China’s threats, and selling off our country, or we can make a stand for our sovereignty” – and he’d very much like you to write him and take his survey.
Which rather bells the cat on the MP’s motivation. The most casual of glances at this website, with its brooding gun metal storm clouds and assertive reds and blues (which George notes is not the official website of a parliamentary committee conducting an inquiry, “but rather my own creation as a proactive member of parliament” #humblebrag) tells you this is an exercise in stoking resentment.
It is an exercise in connecting George with people who feel anxious about events outside their control, and then validating those anxieties, rather than seeing those votes leak to George’s potential usurpers on the hard right.
Lest you think this is just a cynical contention of mine, in case you feel George is simply advancing his well established interest in the complex geopolitics of the region, consider this fact. At the last federal election George faced off against candidates from One Nation, Fraser Anning’s Conservative National party, Katter’s Australia party and Clive Palmer’s UAP. Combined, the nativist micro-parties vacuumed up more than 20% of primary votes. But George held his regional Queensland seat with a positive two-party preferred swing of more than 11%. Labor’s vote in Dawson crashed by more than 12%. George did that by pulling populist stunts like the egregious website. Sadly, we are a long way from the era of Tim Fischer.
I’ll bring us back to the power of anxiety and resentment in a bit, but first I need to guide you away from George’s website, and touch down on an internal brawl that erupted inside the government back in 2017. This might seem an arcane diversion, but it’s important. It marks the point in time when China hawks on the Coalition backbench started to front-run the government’s China policy.
The official line on Beijing became tougher in increments
Let’s remind ourselves quickly about what happened. In March 2017, Malcolm Turnbull had to yank a proposed extradition treaty with China because of an internal boilover. Labor, the Greens and the former Liberal senator Cory Bernardi lined up in support of a disallowance motion to scuttle the proposed treaty with China, and a handful of Liberal senators telegraphed they would back the disallowance.
Perhaps some of the opponents were intent on creating opportunistic havoc for Turnbull and then foreign minister Julie Bishop, but in the main, the internal resistance to the treaty was entirely principled.
The argument from Liberals who dissented from government policy was Australia should not be party to an extradition treaty with an authoritarian regime where the rule of law does not prevail – an impeccable principle for anyone who cares about human rights and basic principles of liberty. The mystery was not the pushback, but why Australia had contemplated such an agreement in the first place. It seemed symptomatic of a loss of moral clarity in the relationship; that the dollars had clouded the sense.
Prevailing in that internal battle taught the China hawks there was merit in pushing the envelope, and it is fair to say after that incident, the government’s official line on Beijing became tougher in increments.
Obviously the shift that played out during 2017 is significantly more complex and multifaceted than a backbench tail wagging a frontbench dog. There is a good book to be written documenting how and why Australia’s tone about China became more muscular, and how that pivot was then filtered and amplified through the media – resulting in a complex bilateral relationship being presented routinely in cartoonish and sometimes hysterical terms. The era of the “panda hugger” was unleashed.
That’s a great story, but the simple point to establish right now is a front-running, or pace-setting, dynamic was created within the government after the 2017 treaty boilover. That dynamic has persisted, and if anything accelerated, to the point where the Coalition’s China hawks have factions.
Let a hundred flowers bloom
George, not known for playing well with others, is a solo act. The New South Wales conservative Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is another soloist. Then there’s the group that have dubbed themselves “The Wolverines” (which believe it or not is a reference to a Patrick Swayze movie, Red Dawn) – people like Andrew Hastie, the head of parliament’s intelligence committee, James Paterson and Tim Wilson. This latter group runs as a pack, coordinating messaging.
This front-running is largely unrestrained by Scott Morrison or senior ministers – at least not in public – which is a dynamic worth investigating. Given the issue in question is the China relationship – a matter of great import given the combustibility of the geopolitics, and the importance of the trading relationship to Australia’s economic prosperity – Morrison could muzzle. He could insist that he and the foreign minister articulate Australia’s foreign policy, and yet he mostly gives the hawks their head, provided the language doesn’t get too florid.
We are witnessing a contemporary Maoism. Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend. The obvious question to ask is why? There are a few potential answers. Morrison evidently calculates the risk of muzzling up-and-coming MPs who believe they must speak outweighs the benefits of dialling down the diplomatic noise.
Presumably the prime minister intuits a crackdown on the free range China seminar within his own ranks would lead to a lethal breakout at some point or other.
The other benefit for Morrison of the free range seminar is it allows his government, domestically, to project many positions on China. It allows the government to speak to people in the community who fear the hegemonic ambitions of the authoritarian regime in Beijing. The hawks represent those view points, while the grown-ups in the ministry maintain a more measured diplomatic tone, trying to keep trade on the rails.
Now why would Morrison feel the need to be all things to all people? A cynic might observe this is situation normal for this prime minister, but the worst thing about cynicism is it saps curiosity. We need to be curious about why things happen, and there are significant issues to tease out.
The China conversation under way in the polity is in part a function of the historical moment. Australians can see the great powers are in flux. China is rising, and America is withdrawing from global leadership. The geopolitical gear shift isn’t elegant, it’s chaotic and unsettling, and we are wedged between our most important security partner, America, and our economic interests in the region.
Then of course, Covid-19 hit, bringing with it an overlay of domestic economic insecurity. Anyone in politics right now knows unease is building in the Australian community. You can feel a ripple of anxiety in our Guardian Essential poll as people begin to fret about their labour market prospects, with unemployment still to peak at 10%. A strong majority in that survey suspects China isn’t being transparent in its reporting about the scope of the pandemic. A significant chunk of the sample, over a third, thinks the Covid-19 virus was engineered and released from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan.
We know that economic downturns light a match under nativist sentiment. We saw it during the global financial crisis, which triggered Brexit, and created the wave that carried Donald Trump to the presidency. We largely avoided a witches brew here because we were shielded from the worst of the fallout by China’s demand for our commodities and by an economic stimulus program rolled out by the then Labor government.
But the negative economic effects of Covid are harder to insulate ourselves from, despite the Coalition’s stimulus now dwarfing Labor’s in 2009. There has always been a current of community opposition to foreign investment, to foreign workers, to threats beyond our borders. That’s in Australia’s collective DNA. But this undercurrent of nativism will be turbocharged by the economic shock associated with the coronavirus.
Over the coming months, the government is going to be dealing with rising protectionist sentiment, both domestically and internationally – and here’s a prediction. While the Wolverines faction have been out promulgating the perils of proximity to the Chinese Communist party, those same MPs will also be on the frontline of resisting a return to protectionism.
It’s been a journey, this column, so let’s bring our story together: Morrison giving the China hawks their way – while pursuing a more restrained diplomatic line at senior levels – presumably works in his head as an automatic stabiliser in febrile political times.
Bubbling grievances and anxieties are validated by one arm of the government, while the grown-ups work to keep the China relationship more or less on the rails, and duck to avoid being co-opted by the lunatic in the Oval Office, who would burn the world to the ground to survive his date with the ballot box in November.
It’s quite the game of chicken, this. Maybe it works, and Australia manages to weather the geopolitical storm. Or maybe things go to shit in a really big way, because China declines to be played off the break by Australia for domestic purposes, and the lunatic burns us all.