The consensus is that Scott Morrison has had a good pandemic — a policy and political success good enough to bury memories of his ill-judged holiday in Hawaii as bushfires scorched the nation. Which does seem an age ago.
But has the prime minister really done so well?
While his domestic response has been successful, major problems are emerging from his international response and they will have significant ramifications.
In April, Morrison took the international lead in demanding an investigation into the source of the coronavirus, even proposing independent investigators with powers like “weapons inspectors”.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
This was clearly a diplomatic blunder of the first order. It infuriated the Chinese government and was the catalyst for a major deterioration in the Beijing/Canberra relationship.
There were already simmering tensions between the two over anti-foreign influence legislation, Huawei, the treatment of Uyghurs, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and more. Against that background, who thought it would be a good idea for Australia to call for an invasive and comprehensive investigation into the country that buys 40% of our exports?
To be clear, a thorough investigation into the source of the virus is vital, and it would have been appropriate for Australia to be part of a coalition calling for one. But to lead that call was reckless. The title of a recent editorial in The Global Times, a mouthpiece for Beijing, conveys the depth of China’s anger: “China’s goodwill futile with evil Australia”.
We are already paying the economic price as China places obstacles to, and sanctions on, a growing range of Australian exports including beef, wine, lobster, coal, timber and barley. The potential downside for two of our major export earners — tourism and education — is frightening.
The damage to Australia’s economy will have political consequences for Morrison — from the impact of job losses to the challenge of the National Party demanding extensive compensation for the agricultural sectors targeted by China.
But his problems won’t be limited to the economy. China has shown it’s prepared to wreak reputational as well as economic damage. It has seized on the Brereton report into alleged war crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan.
Beijing’s message is clear: it is hypocrisy for a country that commits war crimes to accuse China of human rights violations.
There is clearly no equivalence here but that won’t still the Chinese cry of double standards.
If, as seems likely, the Morrison government cannot repair the China relationship any time soon, we should expect to hear much more from China on the Afghan affair. Australia is also exposed to potential criticism for its offshore detention arrangements and for Indigenous disadvantage.
A Chinese accusation of inconsistency is another risk for Morrison. Beijing may argue that Australia is quick to condemn the treatment of the Uyghurs but is largely silent on the treatment of Muslims in India and of women in Saudi Arabia. Again, China won’t be silenced by charges of false equivalence.
Under sustained pressure from China, Australia must look for support from its allies. This may have some unforeseen domestic consequences for the Morrison government.
To maximise support from the likes of the UK, France and the United States, the government will need to minimise areas of disagreement with them. One such area stands out: climate change policy. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron have legislated a net zero emissions target for 2050. The same target is a major policy of the incoming Biden administration in the US.
In the quid pro quo of international politics, it’s hard to imagine that Morrison won’t come under pressure to adopt a climate change policy more in tune with that of our major allies. The desire for their support in the quarrel with China may make resisting that pressure difficult.
Of course, there is nothing more dangerous for a Coalition prime minister than climate policy. No one knows that better than Morrison, a minister in both the Abbott and Turnbull governments. The usual cabal of coal champions and climate change contrarians will fiercely resist any movement on climate policy.
Any internal disagreement on the climate issue will probably reflect a wider conflict within the Coalition on how to handle the China crisis. Morrison will be caught between hardliners wanting to “shirtfront” the Chinese and moderates urging him to negotiate a reconciliation. In other words, business as usual for the Coalition — the conservatives versus the liberals.
To resolve that, Morrison will need all the diplomatic skills he’s so far failed to demonstrate in dealing with Beijing.