The view from Billinudgel

Scott Morrison’s foreign forays
The PM concluded a week of patchy diplomacy with his first major speech on foreign policy


The past, they say, is a foreign country – which is just the way Scott Morrison likes it. Against all evidence, he continues to assert that the Australian public is not concerned with five solid years of shenanigans and shemozzles within the ruling Coalition – voters are firmly focused on the glorious future that awaits them once Morrison works out what it actually is.

The past, being foreign, can therefore be ignored. Foreign influences are to be summarily rejected, which seems to be the way our prime minister regards foreign affairs as a whole. So it turned out to be a good thing that Malcolm Turnbull was on hand to deal with Joko Widodo in Bali last week.

Morrison’s thought bubble about moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had already turned into a lead balloon, but Morrison being Morrison was determined to pretend that it was still a serious option.

Apart from the former candidate for Wentworth, Dave Sharma, it had few supporters in Australia. And internationally a similar move has been backed by Donald Trump’s America and Guatemala and almost nobody else.

In our own region the consensus was overwhelmingly negative, especially in the critical case of Indonesia. Morrison already knew that, of course, but when Turnbull repeated it publicly after his talks with the president last week, our leader doubled down, saying, essentially, that the views of the 250 million inhabitants of our nearest and most important neighbour were irrelevant: Australia alone would decide what was in our national interest.

When it was pointed out that gratifying the obsessions of Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump had little, if anything, to do with our national interest, while Indonesia’s reaction may be rather more pertinent, Morrison went to ground.

But he re-emerged to give a speech on the wider subject of foreign affairs, this time with the assistance of those who knew something about the topic. And after the ritual obeisance to Washington, with the ritual caveat that even friends could sometimes disagree, etc., it was across to the Pacific.

Our backyard, as Morrison likes to call it, is more than somewhat miffed by the disparaging comments of Peter Dutton (“water lapping at your door”) and Melissa Price (“it’s always about the cash”). It is uncertain whether Morrison’s reassurance that we really want the islands to like us more than they like China, and that we are honestly trying to do something about it, will do the job.

But there will definitely not be ocean-wide applause at his set-piece announcement of a new military base on Manus Island, which will provide some benefit to Papua New Guinea but a great deal more to Australia. Bill Shorten’s promise of a Pacific development bank sounded a far more welcome form of aid for the region.

But at least it can be said that Morrison has now moved a little on the Pacific Solution, and the billions being used to prop up our shameful record on Nauru and its corrupt regime. Perhaps that may be finally in the past too – and too foreign to contemplate.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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