Morrison risks alienation and bipartisanship in aligning Australia with Trump

Kai Neagle is an undergraduate student studying International Relations at the University of Adelaide, where his main fields of study are Chinese language and Asian Studies. Australian by birth, in his spare time he enjoys speculating about Australian foreign policy, political affairs and the broader Indo-Pacific region.

In an attempt to shore up votes for a by-election in the electorate of Wentworth and to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government have made a series of foreign policy statements which sharply depart not just from previous government policy but from the international consensus. Seen abroad as an embrace of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East agenda, Morrison has suggested that Australia may move its embassy to Jerusalem and review whether it will continue to support the Iran nuclear deal. These moves threaten Australia’s place in the Indo-Pacific as a sensible defender of the liberal order and the usually bipartisan nature of security policy.

The Prime Minister’s fragile government faced its first major test earlier this month as the seat vacated by his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull—traditionally a Liberal stronghold—fell to an independent insurgency from a popular former president of the Australian Medical Association. The unusual demography of the seat, where 13% of the population are Jewish, prompted the Liberal candidate—former Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma—to suggest that Australia should consider moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Doing so would make Australia the second nation after the United States to pre-empt ongoing negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian governments, asserting that the currently-contested Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

Within twenty-four hours of Sharma’s comments, the Morrison government was embroiled in its first major foreign policy crisis as the Prime Minister repeated that stance. The Indonesian government threatened to hold off on signing an imminent free trade agreement and Arab diplomats representing fifteen countries convened a meeting in Canberra to discuss potential economic responses if the government went through with the move. Unlike the United States, Middle Eastern nations do not depend on Australia for security and economic prosperity. It will be easier for those governments to make an example out of Australia by robustly responding if Morrison carries through with his threat. Years of goodwill built between Australia and Middle Eastern partners since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 could be damaged by reckless statements designed to shore up domestic votes for the incumbent government. Important bilateral relationships with Indo-Pacific partners such as Indonesia and Malaysia could also be threatened, as officials in those comments made clear such a provocative move would be unacceptable.

In addition, the government is also reconsidering its current support for the Iran nuclear deal. The previous government held the deal in such high regard that Prime Minister Turnbull publicly criticised the United States when it announced its intention to withdraw, calling the move regrettable and standing with Germany, France and the United Kingdom. In what appears to be a move by Morrison to closely align Australian foreign policy with the United States’ rather than embracing middle powers in defence of the liberal order, Morrison made these comments despite Australia not being a signatory to the deal. Whether or not Australia supports the deal is inconsequential, and would reveal a hesitant government unwilling to stand up for its own values.

Governments from both sides of the aisle tend to gravitate towards the centre on foreign policy. So much so that foreign powers need not concern themselves about the party in power, because the fundamental tenets of policy remained the same—a strong Australian Defence Force, engaging with regional partners and committing to multilateralism. Indeed, foreign policy is seldom debated in the Parliament because it is uncontroversial—both major parties agree the major policies of the day. Morrison’s proposed Middle East policy threaten this bipartisanship, as the opposition Australian Labor Party now seeks fit to openly criticise these moves. If the previous nature of foreign policy is threatened in Australia, it could further undermine (leadership challenges have already done so to a lesser extent) our image as a stable and continuous defender of the liberal order. One thinks of the slippery slope—as the Opposition feels comfortable criticising absurd policies such as these, elements within that party may seek fit to attack more relevant concepts such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) or even the ANZUS alliance. It is in the interests of all Australians that foreign policy remains cohesive and bipartisan. Moves by Morrison over the past week demonstrate his disregard for established norms in that area.

What lies in store for Australia’s place in the world after these comments? It is anyone’s guess. One cannot help but thinking this may blow over after the Wentworth by-election. But in a world where Australia only makes international news for racism, animal attacks and constant leadership spills, this foreign policy debacle may temporarily shed light onto another ugly side of our sometimes imperfect Commonwealth.

Kai NeagleComment