Scott Morrison delivers the 2019 Lowy Institute Lecture.
Scott Morrison delivers the 2019 Lowy Institute Lecture. (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

At a time when the world’s most bombastic national leaders offer up uncompromising sovereign state nationalism, a speech that challenges and seeks to reshape Australia’s involvement in and relationship with the broader global architecture will attract sharp attention.

Scott Morrison’s lecture at the Lowy Institute last night was not as ultra-nationalist as Donald Trump’s “the future belongs to patriots” rhetoric, or Boris Johnson’s “take back control” mantra, but in the context of these messages it appeared to take sides.

Morrison’s words will most probably not lead to any change in Australia’s attitudes or behaviour when it comes to working with global bodies such as the United Nations and its various sub-bodies, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or the big economic outfits such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Australia has a good working relationship with most of these but, when the Coalition has been in power, there’s been a more jaundiced, less welcoming view of the UN — particularly when it comes to our treatment of refugees and Indigenous Australians.

In this context, Morrison was doing what conservatives love to accuse the left of engaging in: some good old fashioned virtue-signalling. It is cost-free, gets a friendly headline from the usual cheer squad, and takes some pressure off the prime minister at a time he’s being beaten up by megaphone critics like Alan Jones because of the government’s insufficient action on the drought.

However, it’s another sign Morrison is not concerned about hitching his wagon to Trump, something that carriers significant risk. While the US retains significant support with the Australian public, the view of Trump is very negative.

No Australian leader is going to take on a US president. So the only other options are to either visibly side with the occupant of the White House, or find a neutral way to work with that person, as someone like Japan’s Shinzo Abe has been able to do.

The substance of what Morrison said in the Lowy lecture was not really different to the foreign policy we saw during the 11 years of the Howard government. In that time, John Howard regularly pushed back hard against UN committees like the UN High Commission for Refugees, and his foreign minister Alexander Downer never sought to disguise his contempt for the UN.

It is the global context that adds weight to Morrison’s speech. Morrison doesn’t care that he’s easily lumped with Trump and Johnson, which suggests he thinks this will play well with those “quiet Australians” he summons at every turn.

While Morrison is happy to rail against what he sees as bad globalism, he certainly likes global travel. During his first 12 months in office he took more trips than any of his five predecessors, and in his Lowy address he foreshadowed three new journeys: to Indonesia this year, and Japan and India in the first month or so of 2020. He’s also going to APEC in Chile in mid-November, and visiting Fiji at the end of next week.

The one invitation Morrison cannot swing is from the Chinese leadership in Beijing. The last Australian leader to go to China was Malcolm Turnbull, who ventured there in 2016. Since then, Xi Jinping and the rest of the Politburo have taken an attitude towards Australia that swings between very chilly to a deep freeze. At the moment, we’re not even close to a thaw.

Australia shares a place in the Beijing freezer with Canada and we are undoubtedly being punished for the same reason: our hardline approach to the giant telecommunications firm Huawei. A high-level Australian delegation, led by Howard and former Labor foreign minister Stephen Smith, went to Beijing last December in a bid to talk the Chinese into relaxing their sternness towards Australia, but any impact that might have had was pushed aside because of our ban on Huawei’s involvement in the 5G mobile network.

With these sentiments ever present, it has been a foreign policy misstep to even appear to be “all the way with Donald J”. China and the US are set to resume trade talks in the next fortnight, but the trajectory is uncertain at best. China wants to cool things but refuses to be seen to lose any face with Trump. The US president, of course, always wants to be the winner. It’s a volatile mix and one Australia should have wisely stayed out of. Morrison is not going to get a Beijing sticker for the prime ministerial suitcase any time soon.

Dennis Atkins is a freelance writer based in Brisbane where he was a national political editor during the Howard government. He has been filling in for part of the time while Bernard Keane has been enjoying a break. Bernard returns to the Crikey bunker next week.