30 September 2020
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last Friday, Scott Morrison emphasised the need for global cooperation to manage challenges like COVID-19. He also praised the UN for “fulfilling its high purpose, the purpose that seventy-five years ago brought the world together in a united hope, and in goodwill”.
The speech marked a subtle shift in tone from Morrison. In a high-profile lecture at the Lowy Institute last October, he warned of “negative globalism” and called for an audit of the role Australia plays in global organisations. To their credit, foreign minister Marise Payne and trade minister Simon Birmingham have continued to support active multilateral diplomacy in the months since Morrison made these remarks.
As a middle-sized power, dependent on open trade and investment markets, Australia has long pursued peace and prosperity by being actively involved in global institutions. The cross-border health risks presented by COVID-19 and the resulting disruption to international supply chains have underlined how such institutions are becoming more important to national security.
While Morrison still rightly calls for the continued reform of institutions such as the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization, his move towards a more positive globalism will boost Australia’s ability to pursue its international interests.
New Caledonia and Bougainville vote
On Sunday, New Caledonians vote for the second time on whether to become independent from France after more than 150 years as a dependent overseas territory.
New Caledonia may hold up to three referendums on independence under the 1988 Matignon Agreement, which ended more than a decade of instability and violence caused by rising separatist sentiment in the territory. In the first referendum in 2018, 56.4 per cent of voters opposed independence, fewer than many analysts and the French government expected. A third vote could be held by 2022.
The referendum approaches as the Autonomous Region of Bougainville takes another step towards its independence from Papua New Guinea, with the election of a former Bougainville Revolutionary Army leader, Ishmael Toroama, as its new president.
Australia’s connection to New Caledonia extends back to the 1880s, when it forcibly brought Kanak people to Australia to work as labourers in Queensland’s sugarcane plantations. Its importance to Australia has grown in recent years, as Canberra has strengthened its relationship with France in the Pacific, as part of its loose coalition-building efforts to combat the rise of China.
A vote for independence may unsettle the Australia–France relationship and create another unstable country in a region where Australia is facing rising aid demands.
The leadership of Malaysia has once again been thrown into confusion. Last week, Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim claimed he had sufficient parliamentary support to take over the prime ministership from the relatively new incumbent, Muhyiddin Yassin.
Similar uncertainty arose in February when Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister at the time, walked away from his governing coalition with Anwar due to longstanding rivalry over the top job.
The parliament does not sit until this November. But Malaysia’s king, who is due to meet Anwar this week, has three options: he can accept that Anwar has a majority, he can declare that Muhyiddin remains the legitimate prime minster, or he can call an early election on Muhyiddin’s request.
The current turmoil means Malaysia – which hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit later this year – is more focused on internal challenges than regional stability, as are Indonesia and Thailand.
This is problematic for Canberra, which is counting on key South-East Asian countries to cooperate on managing regional issues, such as COVID-19 and the rise of China.
Malaysia is one of Australia’s oldest allies and economic partners in Asia, and the two countries have deep cultural ties. Canberra has quietly supported governance reforms during the last three years of unusually contested democratic ferment in Malaysia – it may need to keep doing so.