9 October 2019
Last Thursday night, Scott Morrison gave this year’s Lowy Institute lecture, which should have been an opportunity to explore significant global changes affecting Australia, such as growing tensions between China and the United States. Instead, Morrison’s speech was confused, paranoid and strangely contradictory. It featured an urgent warning about “negative globalism”, a new menace that he never properly defined, and he was equally vague about another of his key assertions – that successful international cooperation has always been “underpinned by common values”.
Morrison offered little to explain what he meant by this, but seemed to suggest that Australia should avoid, or at least mistrust, international initiatives and institutions that include nations such as China. It is a principle that, if applied, would leave Australia isolated and ineffective, and seemed to contradict his call elsewhere in the speech for Australia to try to shape international affairs.
Morrison’s alarm about negative globalism and an “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy” appeared to be directed at the United Nations. His recent visit to the United States coincided with a UN climate summit at which he was not invited to speak because Australia lacks an ambitious carbon emissions reduction target. Responding to an address at the summit by 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, Morrison said: “I don’t want our children to have anxieties about these issues.” In his Lowy lecture, he denounced “anxiety-inducing moral panic” but gave no further detail on that topic either.
The UN is a perennial target for conservatives in the Liberal Party. Like any institution, it has its faults: it can be bloated and bureaucratic, and it has been widely criticised for including human rights abusers as members and for obsessively targeting Israel. But the UN has attempted to address these problems through internal reform and setting up a new human rights arm. This work needs to continue, but the UN’s flaws do not undo the greater benefits of having a global forum that can establish agreement on laws and norms, resolve disputes and oversee peacekeeping and sanctions.
Morrison didn’t acknowledge any of this. Indeed, he didn’t name the UN as an unaccountable force or explain his objections to it. His comments may reflect a darkening view of the world, and, as some commentators have suggested, a Trumpian shift towards an inward-looking “Australia first” approach. Or he may have been issuing a foreign policy dog whistle, assuring his party’s conservative wing that he is on their side, without making explicit statements that could damage Australia’s standing in the international community.
The prime minister’s comments about international institutions require some guesswork to interpret. He made the unexceptional points that the current state of global uncertainty is not new, and that Australia can address its challenges through cooperation. But his qualifier to that, as he asserted repeatedly, was that progress for Australia has depended on working alongside “like-minded” states and liberal democracies, particularly the United States. This seems to have been directed at China, though the country remained unnamed. It isn’t clear whether Morrison was proposing a new principle of Australian foreign policy, which will try to limit China’s role in international affairs. Certainly, his comments reflect a fear of the new world that Australia is entering, in which its region is dominated by a country that is not a democracy or an ally. This is a serious dilemma for Australia. Unfortunately, Morrison failed to directly address this in his address.
Despite all the dark rhetoric, Morrison did not reveal any significant policy. He said he had asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to conduct an audit of international bodies in which Australia has a big stake. The aim, it seems, is to try to increase Australia’s influence and engagement. In other words – and thankfully – Morrison is not yet bending policy to fit with his list of ill-defined threats. Instead, he is reaching for old-fashioned tools of diplomacy.