Friday, November 22, 2019

Today by Paddy Manning

Spooked on China
The prime minister is backing Australia into a corner


Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s both-siderism on the US versus China is sounding increasingly tenuous. Australia’s strategic dilemma sharpens with every new alarming report: from Beijing, where Australian writer Yang Hengjun is detained; from Hong Kong, where live rounds are now being used against protesters; from Xinjiang province, where more than a million Uyghurs are imprisoned at the behest of President Xi Jinping. Asked on 3AW whether Australia supported the US or China, Morrison told Neil Mitchell “we don’t have to make these choices”. Not yet, perhaps, but soon we will. Asked why Australia was not doing more – on Yang, on Hong Kong, on the Uyghurs – Morrison said the relationship was “quite broad, and I don’t find it’s ever helped by focusing on the issues in the relationship and the difference between the two systems”. Barely a diplomatic fig leaf to hide behind there.

To be fair to the prime minister the best way forward for Australia is not easy to find. It would instil greater confidence if we knew that, instead of winging it, Morrison was taking advice from his department full of experts, before making sweeping decisions, such as declaring China a developed rather than developing country, as he did mid year in an act of mini-Trumpism. Improvising on foreign policy is perilous, as Morrison was supposed to have learnt when (in another act of mini-Trumpism) he unilaterally decided Australia should relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a stunt that helped lose the Wentworth byelection last year.

This week we’ve had former PM Paul Keating say that the spooks are running Australia’s China policy, and warn that China had replaced communism in a new cold war. No doubt there is an element of truth to this, but at the same time Australia can hardly turn a blind eye if China veers towards oppression. Former prime minister Tony Abbott warned instead of a new “cold peace” with China, which also had a ring of truth to it.

This morning’s Nine newspapers feature an interview by Peter Hartcher with former ASIO chief Duncan Lewis, who warns that the Chinese government is seeking to “take over” Australia’s political system through its “insidious” foreign interference operations. It’s a fair way from the Sam Dastyari affair – really an expenses scandal – to infiltration of our political system. 

Morrison responded to questions about Lewis well this morning, pointing out that Lewis “worked closely with our government over many years to ensure that we had the most robust and well-resourced system of protections and legal systems to protect Australia’s democracy and to ensure that we could maintain the integrity of our system from any and all sort of threats”.

Everywhere it’s vexed. Australia wants a rules-based order to resolve trade disputes – and the Trump administration may be just days away from blowing up the World Trade Organisation – but at the same time there are legitimate grievances, here and in the US, with China’s track record of espionage and intellectual-property theft. Hong Kong and Taiwan are legitimately part of China, yet nobody wants to stand by and watch democratic freedoms extinguished.

Most troubling is when a belligerent racist such as Breitbart founder Steve Bannon presumes to lecture Australia on getting tough on China, urging us to confront totalitarianism ahead of any possible conflict with the US. Coming from a flunkey to the most law-breaking, democracy-trashing president in living memory, that sort of inflammatory talk just feeds the suspicion that Australia is being nudged towards an unthinkable, unnecessary war.


“Prudence and mutual obligation are values I learnt growing up and they are values that I will take to fiscal policy. I want our economic framework to have a soft heart and a hard head. I want to lead a fiscally responsible Labor government that invests with an eye firmly fixed on productivity. We have now reached the limits of the Hawke–Keating reforms. And new challenges require new impetus.”

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese vows to end the productivity recession in the second of a series of “vision statements”.

“Our preferred position was the National Energy Guarantee, but if we could get a better deal for NSW than the National Energy Guarantee would deliver then I was open to negotiations, which is what we have been working on for the past several months. It has been great working with Angus Taylor; he has been exceptional, he understands the needs of the NSW government and the NSW citizens and I am confident that we will be able to land a very constructive deal.”

NSW energy minister Matt Kean flags a cooperative approach with his federal counterpart ahead of today’s energy ministers’ meeting in Perth.

Robodebt and China (a week in two acts)
The Morrison government has halted its robodebt program, finally confronting issues with the troubled scheme. Separately, the government has affirmed its reliance on Chinese trade – irrespective of human rights concerns. Paul Bongiorno on the week in politics.


The number of times 26-year-old David Dungay said he couldn’t breathe before he died while being restrained by five guards in Long Bay prison in 2015. NSW coroner Derek Lee found none of the guards should face disciplinary action.

“The new measures include … increasing the proportion of new refugees and humanitarian entrants settled outside Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, with a target of 50 per cent by 2022. This is consistent with the Government’s broader focus on regional migration.”

The Morrison government announces a package of new measures “to better support refugees and humanitarian entrants to settle in Australia”, in response to the review of refugee resettlement programs by Professor Peter Shergold, which was released today.

The list

“The word ‘Tarnanthi’ means ‘to rise’, ‘to come forth’, ‘to appear’. The festival is a powerful answer to postcolonial Australia … This fifth iteration of the Art Gallery of South Australia–centric exhibitions, and third iteration of the biennial festival that accompanies it, is the largest yet.”

The Crown’s ongoing success is that it allows us to sympathise with the royals without ever letting them, the monarchy, the class system or colonisation off the hook. Beyond that, it’s a gripping soap with a defining edge: it’s rare to have a biopic series about a still-living historical figure navigating her life’s work and inevitably transforming herself, for better or worse, alongside the transforming world.”

“News Corp defends a child rapist and demeans his victims. It degrades and cows the national broadcaster until it threatens its function, and occasionally its existence. It undermines the rule of law. It does everything it can to impinge on climate change action, just as the ramifications of climate change begin to bite. Who has the better predictive record: climate scientists or boosters of the Iraq War?”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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