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The Rookie PMs

The Rookie PMs

How Canberra’s leadership circus is damaging ties with Asia


“We do not claim to be Asian.” This provocative statement defined John Howard’s first overseas trip as prime minister in September 1996. He meant no offence to his host, Indonesian president Suharto, and none was taken. In fact, the comment generated little discussion at the time because it was self-evidently true. Australia’s ethnic face was Anglo-European. Barely 5 per cent of our population was born in Asia, and the projections at the time had the figure creeping up to 7.5 per cent by 2025.

“Are we reverting to England?” would have been the more appropriate question at the dawn of the Howard era, because immigrants were still coming from the mother country while the waves from Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia had long dried up. In 1996, the English-born in Australia outnumbered immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and from Asia.

“I do not believe that Australia faces a choice between our history and our geography,” Howard told the Indonesians and the travelling Australian press corp. “Neither do I see Australia as a bridge between Asia and the West, as is sometimes suggested.”

The reference to the “bridge” did cause a stir because it seemed to undermine the purpose of the address, which was to reassure our neighbours that his newly elected government would remain an “active participant in the region”. Howard thought the criticism was overblown and was slow to clear to air. “These words were followed by others which put them in proper context, yet for several days the press wrote of a ‘blunder’,” he explained in his memoir, Lazarus Rising.

But Howard underestimated the baggage he was carrying on that first official visit. Six days earlier, Pauline Hanson had used her maiden speech to parliament to call for a return to the White Australia policies of racial selection and industry protection. In a region where one-party rule was the norm, even in democracies such as Japan or Taiwan, it was easy for the misunderstanding to take root that Hanson was speaking for the Australian government, even though she sat on the crossbenches. Hanson’s line, “we are in danger of being swamped by Asians”, was compared with Howard’s apparent distancing of Australia from Asia.

Howard did go to Jakarta with domestic politics in mind, but he wasn’t thinking of Hanson. He was still brooding over a campaign sledge from his arch rival, Paul Keating. As the 1996 election barrelled towards the inevitability of a landslide Coalition victory, Keating had made the extraordinary claim that Asian leaders would not deal with Howard. In Jakarta, Howard no doubt wanted to show Keating, and perhaps prove to himself, that Asia would not only welcome him to the leaders’ club but accept him on his own terms, as a proud Australian.

The first impression of a man out of his depth might have stuck if Howard had lost office in 1998, or 2001. But he had time to grow into the job. Slowly, he learned to lift his gaze from the headlines back home and appreciate the perspective of the people in the room. By 2003, he was playing host to US president George W. Bush and Chinese president Hu Jintao on consecutive days. And in 2004, he earned the affection and respect of the new Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, with his generous aid response to the Boxing Day tsunami. From uncomfortable novice to elder statesman, it took many years of trial and error on the international stage to find the sweet spot between diplomacy and domestic politics.

I was reminded of Howard’s uncertain regional debut when Scott Morrison, our fifth prime minister in the past five years, changed the location for misunderstanding from Jakarta to the eastern suburbs of Sydney, where the government was facing a difficult by-election. The seat of Wentworth had been vacated by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull after the August 2018 coup against his leadership. Morrison inserted himself into the final stages of the election campaign by suggesting that Australia would move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He was presumably pitching to the large Jewish population in the electorate, because there was no apparent logic beyond Wentworth – it is plainly absurd to think that a newly installed Australian prime minister with no prior experience in foreign affairs would suddenly emerge, saviour-like, to bring peace to the Middle East. No country asked Morrison to build a bridge between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Yet there he was, a leader without a domestic mandate playing statesman outside his own region, seemingly without giving a moment’s thought to how this policy shift would be received by Indonesia or Malaysia, which supported the Palestinian cause.

The steps to what quickly became a crisis are worth recounting because they point to a wider systemic problem in our body politic. It has become the habit of every prime minister since Howard to view Asia through the wrong end of the telescope, placing domestic concerns above all else and assuming that our neighbours will forgive our insensitivity when we ask them to play along. But while Howard matured in the role of prime minister, none of his successors have held the job long enough to leave a positive legacy. Inevitably, this will tarnish Australia’s image in the region, as our temporary prime ministers become known only for their rookie diplomatic errors and the manner of their dismissal.

Morrison had enjoyed a charmed run to national leadership. Whereas Howard slogged for twenty-two years before becoming prime minister at his second election attempt, Morrison fulfilled his ambition in half the time, without having to face the people, and without blood on his hands – a critical break with the habit of Liberal and Labor predecessors, from Billy McMahon to Malcolm Turnbull, and from Bob Hawke to Julia Gillard.

The position fell into his lap after the Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, challenged Turnbull for the leadership last August. Dutton had gathered just enough support in the party room to cripple Turnbull, but not a majority to replace him. Morrison, the nation’s treasurer for the past three years, was the compromise candidate. His luck appeared to be overflowing because his first act as prime minister was to fly to Jakarta to sign a free trade agreement with Indonesian president Joko Widodo. The deal had been handed to him on a platter by Turnbull, who had been settling the fine print just before the coup.

All went according to plan on the day. Morrison recited the mantra that every Australian prime minister since Keating takes to Jakarta. “The partnership between Australia and Indonesia is one of our nation’s most significant,” he announced. “Indonesia is playing, and will continue to play, a much greater role on the global stage, particularly in the areas of economy and security.” As a senior member of the government, Morrison might be expected to understand what those words meant.


This is an extract from Australian Foreign Affairs 5: Are We Asian Yet?. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.