On China, national security and defence, the Coalition and Labor are ready to play politics, but they use very different language
The public intervention by ASIO leader Mike Burgess sounded the alarm about the potential damage of a toxic political row over national security.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison upped the ante in parliament this week, insulting the opposition and calling Deputy Labor Party leader Richard Marles a “Manchurian candidate” – in effect a dupe of China.
The Prime Minister withdrew his remark, but the damage was done, or perhaps the point was made.
Clearly, Morrison thinks his opponents are vulnerable when it comes to safety and defense.
When it comes to China, there is little that separates the Coalition and Labour. Indeed, the Labor Party has been criticized by one of its own – former Prime Minister Paul Keating – for toeing the Conservative line too slavishly.
Foreign interference laws and bans on Chinese tech giant Huawei, among others, have frozen relations between Australia and China.
Labor was determined to push back against Beijing’s bullying.
But while there isn’t much difference in general approach, there is a noticeable difference in emphasis, language and priorities when it comes to foreign affairs more broadly.
Labor is less muscular, less focused on defence, which the Coalition would describe as “softer”: we talk more about alliances, values and culture than about firearms.
Penny Wong’s Plan for Foreign Affairs
How does Labor see the world? The best guide is a historic speech on Australia’s place in the worlddelivered last year by Labor Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Penny Wong at the Australian National University.
It was his plan on how, as a potential future foreign minister, she would “build the region and the world we want”.
Wong said the rise of nationalism, the unraveling of multilateralism, great power competition, COVID and climate change made this the time of greatest uncertainty since the end of World War II.
A “more assertive China” was essential, Wong said: “We have to face this reality: our region is being reshaped.”
We are in a “contest”, she says, “a race” for influence. Australia was to contribute everything in its power – “strategic, diplomatic, social and economic”.
Wong said Australia should develop “soft power”, build partnerships and “project modern Australia”. Foreign policy, she argued, “starts with who we are.”
But who are we ? Multicultural, Wong said — a country that should value indigenous peoples more, “the first diplomats of this land.”
Wong thinks that we must “strengthen our social cohesion”: foreign policy begins at home. She raised questions about Australian racism, “how our past attitudes and politics on race can provide opportunities for others to promote narratives that limit our influence”.
Wong called on former Prime Minister Tony Abbott to “champion the Anglosphere” – think “how it was received in the region”, she said.
The Coalition sees things differently
This is a clear distinction with the Morrison government. The Coalition would never raise questions about Australian racism in a foreign policy context. For the Coalition, the Anglosphere, far from being something to back down from, is the bedrock of Australian identity and security.
Where the Coalition is going after defense – warning of “drumbeats of war”, increasing defense funding, talking about QUAD, pledging to develop nuclear submarines, signing the AUKUS agreement – Penny Wong’s goal was not to bear arms.
For Wong, most of the challenges in the region “are not about kinetic military conflict”. There are threats, she said, “that cannot be deterred by military might alone.”
Labor has backed initiatives like AUKUS, QUAD and the nuclear sub-deal. But his record in office shows he has cut defense spending.
Labor is uncomfortable with the more overwhelming talk of safety.
In her speech, Penny Wong accused Defense Secretary Peter Dutton of “exacerbating” the threat of war. She criticized Dutton for saying it was “inconceivable” that Australia would not “join” a war in defense of Taiwan.
She said it was “extremely out of step” with Australian and American strategy. While it is true that the United States has been cautious and pursued a policy of “strategic ambiguity”, US President Joe Biden has also said that America is “committed” to defending Taiwan.
When it comes to “escalating” the war, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has set the tone. It said it reserved the right to take Taiwan by force and quickly escalated the size and frequency of military exercises over Taiwan.
The decision of whether Australia will send troops may well be imposed on a future Labor government.
Since Wong’s speech last year, global security has changed dramatically – and Labor may need to rethink its approach.
Russia has more than 100,000 troops potentially ready to invade Ukraine while Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have confirmed their “no limits” pact.
War is not a hypothetical proposition, nations threaten and plan for it. Soft power will not suffice. Australia is spending more on defense and will have to spend more.
Voters have a choice
Penny Wong has put a lot of emphasis on multilateralism. Yet the truth is, as the World Economic Forum recently pointed out, multilateralism is weakening.
We live in an age of great power politics. Nations and national interests are at the forefront. Joe Biden has made it very clear that this age is defined and will be decided by the struggle of democracy and autocracy.
Although Wong never used incendiary phrases like “Manchurian candidate”, she certainly got into politics. She accused the Morrison government of being deceitful.
She said ‘boosting’ the prospect of war on China was ‘the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history’.
Scott Morrison “desperately plays politics with China whenever he gets in trouble,” she said. “His basic instinct is always to lie”, then “he tells new lies to deny his old lies”.
“Australians can’t believe a word he says anymore,” Wong said. “When he lies, Australia loses.”
Both political camps are ready to use defence, security and foreign affairs to play partisan games.
It started long before this week’s new low. Foreign policy is not normally a decisive issue in federal elections, but these are not normal times. This time it’s critical.
Labor and the Coalition can largely agree on the risks and threats from China and the volatility of geopolitics. But they have very different approaches and they use very different language.
Labor calls the Morrison government a ‘liar’ and ‘dangerous’. The Morrison government describes the Albanian opposition as weak.
It’s as stark a contrast as you could find. And Australian voters will have to choose.
Stan Grant is the ABC’s international affairs analyst and co-host of Q&A. He presents China Tonight Monday at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel.