Labor Anthony Albanese Penny Wong Bill Shorten
Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

In a rare foray into foreign policy, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has hit out at Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s “affinity with Donald Trump” and his handling of the United States alliance. 

“There is no doubt Mr Morrison put this affinity and his political interests first when he effectively went on a campaign rally stage with Donald Trump in Ohio,” Albanese said at Perth USAsia Centre this morning.

Amid shots at Morrison’s indulgence of the Coalition’s more Trumpian impulses, Albanese outlined Labor’s vision for the future of the US alliance during a difficult time.

There’s some clear opportunism in his timing. Ever since Morrison ummed and aahed about Trump’s encouragement of the Capitol insurrection, Labor has attacked the Coalition’s closeness to the president. This morning its foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong did the media rounds to reiterate Albo’s line about Morrison’s Trump problem.

And on the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president, Albanese is sending a signal of Labor’s willingness to diverge from the bipartisan consensus that normally surrounds Australian foreign policy.

The key takeaways

Morrison, Albanese says, got far too cosy with Trump. Now, as the world turns against the soon-to-be-former president, Morrison still refuses to disavow him because his support base is too tied up in the party’s hard right loony fringe.

“He remains afraid of the far-right extremist fringe dwellers who make up the bedrock of his personal support — and who he cultivates through the avatars of Trumpists and conspiracy theorists like Craig Kelly and George Christensen,” he said.

He also criticised Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, describing her as “absent” and creating a vacuum filled by people like Christensen, China hawk Andrew Hastie, and coal fetishist Matt Canavan.

So what would Labor do differently?

Albanese calls for Australia to take a more active role in managing the US alliance — beyond “a series of photo opportunities”. That would involve more leadership in the Indo-Pacific, greater action on climate change, and a role tackling emerging challenges like artificial intelligence and cyber security.

And if anyone in the incoming Biden administration is listening, Albanese calls on the new president to rejoin the Comprehensive Trans-Pacific Partnership, and indicates a desire for the US to reverse the isolationist trends of the Trump administration and return to international leadership and multilateralism.

On China, too, there are signs of difference with Morrison. Over the past 12 months, the Morrison government’s line has often been uncompromising — and at times ill-disciplined hawkishness — culminating in a trade dispute and a deterioration of the bilateral relationship.

Albanese opened the China segment with a softener, praising the country’s “remarkable achievement” in lifting millions out of poverty since 1978. He later acknowledges its increasingly assertive turn under Xi Jinping as a critical challenge, and calls on the Biden administration to put “clearer definition” in its competition with China.

Under Trump, an America first strategy that appeared to abandon regional allies in the Asia-Pacific, followed by a dialling up of anti-China rhetoric in the year before the 2020 election, was a sign of the administration’s confused and impulsive approach to Xi. No more please, Albanese says.

Beyond bipartisanship

Foreign policy in Australia traditionally remains fairly bipartisan. Foreign affairs rarely win elections, and there’s broad consensus around Australia’s place in the world as guided by a strong alliance with the US.

Bill Shorten, an outspoken critic of Trump, went to last year’s election promising an “independent, confident and ambitious” foreign policy while in substance offering little meaningful difference from the Morrison and Turnbull doctrines.

Still, although both parties put great value in the US alliance, Labor’s approach has always been a little more complicated, pulled by a traditional left-wing suspicion of American imperialism towards behaving as what Australian National University historian Frank Bongiorno calls “a friendly critic”.

But that bipartisanship is being stress-tested by two forces of geopolitical instability: a rock-bottom relationship with Xi’s assertive China, and the unpredictability of Trump.

In that context, Albanese’s sharp criticism of Morrison isn’t without precedent. Labor opposed Australia’s involvement in Iraq and Vietnam, and took issue with conservative governments during parts of the World Wars I and II.

During times of global instability, bipartisanship crumbles, Bongiorno says.

“The grave issues with the US during the Trump presidency, the rise of China, all of these are the kinds of pressing issues you get during major shifts in the global balance of power, which make foreign policy more subject to contention,” he said.