Australia’s Political Division at Home Undermines Its Leadership Abroad

Fractious domestic politics have made it all but impossible for the country to formulate coherent policy on critical regional and global issues.

Expert comment Published 3 September 2018 Updated 11 December 2018 3 minute READ
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull leaves a press briefing at Parliament House in Canberra on 23 August. Photo: Getty Images.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull leaves a press briefing at Parliament House in Canberra on 23 August. Photo: Getty Images.

Malcolm Turnbull’s ouster as Australian prime minister had long been a matter of when, not if.

And, in what has become the new normal in Australian politics, his departure marks the fourth Australian prime minister in a row given the boot by their own party colleagues prior to completion of a full term: Kevin Rudd (in 2010), Julia Gillard (2013), Tony Abbott (2015), and now Turnbull. Few will be surprised if the current incumbent, Scott Morrison, is similarly dismissed before too long.

This political turmoil – reflective of deep internal divisions within the Liberal and Labor parties and the slim, fractious parliamentary majorities they have been able to muster once in power – has had a serious impact on Australia’s international presence and leadership.

Australia has a proud history of ‘punching above its weight’, pursuing middle power diplomacy and fostering multilateralism while promoting democracy, human rights, development and stability.

But a more conservative, inward-looking and less internationally active mood has descended over the country in recent years. This is in part owing to the clout of the Liberal Party’s right-wing factions and the Liberals’ need to satisfy their even more conservative governing coalition partner, the National Party, in order to stay in power.

But this greater insularity also reflects the general reluctance of the political class to take bold initiatives owing to the tenuousness of their positions, not least in the eyes of their party room colleagues.

Take the issue of climate change. The precipitating event for Turnbull’s fall was his attempt to introduce relatively limited caps on energy emissions, enough of an excuse for conservatives in his party to draw the knives.

According to a recent analysis in the New York Times, this was the third prime ministerial defenestration in the past 10 years over a climate issue. This even as Australia maintains its position as the world’s largest exporter of coal, falls short of its Paris climate accord commitments and has seen an expansion in government tax incentives to boost fossil fuel extraction.

Or take Australia’s foreign assistance. Under Liberal–National coalition governments over the past five years, Australia’s foreign aid has steadily decreased in real terms by an average of more than five per cent per year according to a fact check by ABC and RMIT University.

Canberra has also steadfastly maintained offshore detention facilities for persons caught attempting to reach the country illegally by boat, despite the condemnation of international human rights organizations, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the president of Australia’s own Human Rights Commission.

Australian leadership on both sides of politics have also struggled to get their footing on what is arguably Australia’s biggest foreign policy challenge of all: managing relations with an increasingly powerful and influential China.

The divisions are stark with high political risk. On the one hand, China is by far Australia’s largest trading partner and export destination: about one-third of all Australian exports by value go to China. On the other hand, concerns have been mounting over the past two years over the unwelcome aspects of Beijing’s increasing influence inside Australia, including evidence of espionage, cyber intrusions and cultivation of parliamentarians.

As a result, China policy has become a political hot potato, and lacks a consensus strategy which aims to take fullest advantage of the benefits of relations with China while deflecting the threats and challenges that relationship also carries.

It is still early days, but the new government under Scott Morrison looks unlikely to take Australia in any new or different directions on these international issues.

It is clear that energy policy reform generally, and climate change mitigation in particular, is a no-go zone for right-of-centre leaders in Australia who wish to keep their jobs (and has upended Labor leaders in the past as well).

On immigration policy, Morrison, like his immediate predecessors, remains in the same strategic position: needful of support from right-wing and conservative elements in his party and within the National Party, his coalition partner. And as minister for immigration and border protection in 2013–14, Morrison was the leading voice in defence of using offshore holding camps to detain would-be immigrants.

As for China, the difficult balance is not going to change. One of Morrison’s last decisions as treasurer before gaining the prime ministership will effectively ban Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE from taking part in building Australia’s 5G network. In contrast, recent research points out that Morrison has also voiced strong support in the past for China as a trade and investment partner.

In the end, Australia should not sell out to China and needs to preserve its values and interests in the face of China’s growing power and influence. But without a constructive relationship with Beijing, Australia’s international room for manoeuvre shrinks.

At the same time, the national political polling remains consistent, predicting an extremely close federal election battle next year, likely precluding any new directions in foreign policy by any leading politicians.

Unfortunately, this all adds to a likely continued diminution in Australia’s role on many international issues. Given Australia’s past contributions, that is a pity. Far better for Australia and the world for Canberra to make good on the words of its most recent foreign policy white paper: ‘Our ability to protect and advance our interests rests on the quality of our engagement with the world.’