Penny Wong Peter Hartcher labor nine
Labor Senator Penny Wong and Nine's Peter Hartcher (Images: AAP)

Penny Wong didn’t want to talk about the book she was there to launch. Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman used the release of Red ZoneThe Sydney Morning Herald international editor Peter Hartcher’s deep-dive into the growing threat of Xi Jinping’s China — as an opportunity to excoriate the Morrison government’s opportunistic, misguided handling of foreign policy.

Delivering a stump speech which had been dropped to media overnight, Wong lashed out at an approach to China that was often “frenzied, afraid and lacking context”.

The Morrison government, she says, is too often caught pandering to the far right, trying to win short-term domestic political battles, and comfortable with letting irresponsibly militaristic voices run wild. By “deliberately encouraging anxiety about conflict” and beating the drums of war, Wong says the government is playing directly into China’s hands.

Often the topic of Hartcher’s book faded into the background during Wong’s outline of the Morrison government’s many opportunistic foreign policy fumbles — from the short-lived decision to recognise East Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in order to win the Wentworth byelection, to Morrison’s years of cosying up to former US president Donald Trump.

And at times there was almost the hint of tension between Hartcher and Wong. For years he has been one of the media’s loudest voices in calling out Xi’s aggressive, militaristic China and its attempts to expand its influence operations in Australia. The thesis of his book concerns Australia “waking up” to the rising threat.

But Wong’s speech, another welcome sign of Labor’s new course on foreign policy, suggests the opposition still thinks the government is sleepwalking.

One of Wong’s few references to Hartcher’s book was to suggest she didn’t necessarily agree with every sentence or every metaphor. Hartcher, meanwhile, opened his portion with a slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to how Wong’s attacks on Morrison had “descended into party politics”.

Wong and party politics quickly became the star of the show, overshadowing Hartcher’s warnings about the state of the China relationship. At an event attended almost entirely by gallery journalists and a smattering of young national security wonks — who else can get to a 10.30am book launch — the senator spent a lot of time deadbatting questions on whether Labor was abandoning foreign policy bipartisanship, and how to solve a problem like Mike Pezzullo’s warmongering.

It’s a pity the discussion was so focused on finding the foreign policy wedge between the two parties. And it’s a pity the launch drew such a scant crowd. A serious discussion about how we protect our 1.3 million-strong Chinese-Australia diaspora from growing McCarthyism and racist attacks was heard by an audience that was overwhelmingly white. An important canvassing of one of the most important policy issues of our time — one which could pose an existential threat to our country — still draws only the most interested observers. It’ll barely get near the front page.

The drumbeats might be getting louder. But it doesn’t seem like too many of us care. Yet.