Thursday, October 18, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

What Price the Pacific?
The environment minister’s gaffe exposes the Australian malaise


There was a point in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years, probably mid 2013, when Labor was an embarrassment to itself, as well as the nation, crying out to be relegated to the Opposition benches, and, truth be told, relieved when they got there. Five years later, the Coalition is today in the same position. The scandal surrounding Environment Minister Melissa Price is symbolic of what is wrong with the government.

Never mind that the minister, a former mining company lawyer, will probably do nothing about climate change – and doesn’t seem to understand it, as we learnt last week – because that’s par for the course in today’s hard-right Coalition. What’s startling is that this newly appointed minister, in a chance meeting with a foreign dignitary, can’t even be relied upon to behave cordially, but instead reportedly made a nasty, loaded dig about our aid budget.

At best, this can be explained as a minor incident, quickly smoothed over. It belies a deeper problem, however: Price’s casual offence-giving shows how far Australia has gone off the rails, policy-wise. The grown-ups are not in charge. Precisely when we could and should be asserting an independent foreign policy, working steadily to build robust relationships in our own region, a careening Morrison government is doubling down on our alliance with a volatile US, and flirting with Trumpism – from Paris, to Jerusalem, to Kiribati. It’s not yet an all-out embrace, but it is getting close.

Consider these headlines that have appeared since the government fell to pieces over climate policy in late August, and toppled the then PM, Malcolm Turnbull: “Australian Prime Minister Abandons Climate Targets, Bowing to Party Pressure” (New York Times); “Australia pulls out of climate change targets agreed at Paris conference” (The Independent); and “‘Is this a red line for us?’ $15b European trade deal doomed if Australia dodges Paris pledge” (SMH). World media reaction has been equally swift after this week’s kneejerk decision by Prime Minister Morrison to ditch official advice and adopt the position on Jerusalem outlined by the Liberal Party’s candidate for Wentworth, former ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma: “Indonesia warns against Australia’s possible embassy move to Jerusalem” (Jakarta Post); “Indonesia may cancel trade deal with Australia if embassy moves to Jerusalem” (Middle East Monitor); “Egypt, Indonesia Warn Australia Against Moving Embassy to Jerusalem (Haaretz); and “Middle East FURY: Anger over Australia PM’s Jerusalem comments days before crucial vote” (Express).

Even the inevitable Nationals-leader-again Barnaby Joyce is worried about the fallout from Morrison’s swerve on Jerusalem – he fears it could harm agricultural export markets in the Middle East and Indonesia. Last night, Seven News’ Mark Riley revealed WhatsApp messages to hamstrung Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, in which Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, told her the move would “slap Indonesia’s face on the Palestine issue”. In a doorstop this morning Labor’s shadow foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said the overnight revelations “tell us the price Australia is paying for the reckless, ill-considered, rushed decision that Scott Morrison made when it comes to moving Australia’s embassy in Israel … I said when it was first announced that the use of the words ‘consider’ and ‘review’ demonstrated the politics of the decision. They wanted to float this idea, give it enough of a run to get votes in Wentworth, from their perspective, and then walk away from it.” Today, The Guardian has obtained an ASIO memo warning the government that relocating the Israel embassy could “provoke protest, unrest and possibly some violence in Gaza and the West Bank”.

We’ll have to see how Melissa Price’s “relaxed conversation” with former Kiribati president Anote Tong plays out in the Pacific – he was exceedingly diplomatic on the ABC’s RN Breakfast this morning, claiming to be hard of hearing, without denying the reported account of what took place. Price reportedly told him that she had her “chequebook” ready because it was “always about the cash” when Pacific Island leaders came to Australia. Price has denied this version of events in parliament, but rang Tong to apologise for any offence.

The more important point is this: with China expanding its sphere of influence, why is Australia penny-pinching in the Pacific? Where is the vision for Australia’s future in this region? After five years of relentless cuts, our foreign aid budget is at historic lows. There are eleven Pacific Island nations – a significant bloc of UN votes – with a combined population of not much more than two million people. For a very small outlay, Australia could be the best friend the Pacific ever had, offering effective aid, leading on climate change that threatens their countries’ very future, developing infrastructure and property, and connecting with the region through employment, education, sport and broadcast media. That would be a real Pacific solution. Instead, we have … an embarrassing circus.

since this morning

Fairfax Media reports that the push to bring down Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack is “real and gathering speed” after Barnaby Joyce signalled [$] that he was open to being drafted back to the Nationals leadership before the next election.

Industrial Relations minister Kelly O’Dwyer will intervene [$] in a Federal Court “test case’’ about casuals, following employer concern that workers will be able to “double dip’’ on their entitlements. ACTU secretary Sally McManus promised “we will fight this tooth and nail”.

The unemployment rate fell [$] sharply to 5 per cent in September.


in case you missed it

In the battle for Wentworth: the AFR’s Phillip Coorey reports [$] that Malcolm Turnbull has declined Liberal Party requests to make an explicit gesture of support for candidate Dave Sharma this week; according to The Guardian, surf clubs in the electorate have benefitted from federal government pork-barrelling; The Australian reports [$] that John Howard will join the campaign today in a last-ditch attempt to win over “grumpy Liberal voters”; and the ABC reveals that a fake email has been used to smear independent candidate Kerryn Phelps.

Abortion will become legal in Queensland, after the state’s parliament voted to support new legislation and erase a 119-year-old “morality” section of the state’s criminal code.

The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy speaks to paediatrician Paul Bauert, who is alerting federal MPs to the emergency on Nauru as conditions become critical for dozens of children.

Fairfax Media reports that the Morrison government has quietly transferred several refugee families to Australia from Nauru this week amid mounting internal pressure to get children off the island after five years.

by Tristen Harwood
The personal is political in ‘The Insult’
Ziad Doueiri’s tense film excavates Lebanon’s violent past

by John van Tiggelen
Cold comfort
The president of Kiribati goes on a fact-finding mission in the Arctic

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?

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