Following the PM’s embarrassing, juvenile tantrum about the Chinese propaganda ploy designed entirely to elicit that reaction, the Chinese told us explicitly what lies at the heart of its current animus against Australia: the Chinese embassy in Canberra issued a statement with the usual nonsense claims of Chinese purity of heart and soul, but containing the specific allegation that the Morrison government sought to ‘stoke domestic nationalism’.
Chinese expansionism and propaganda are transparent: unashamed espionage, cyberattacks, disinformation, and a swaggering, bullying militarism. Its messages are often so asinine as to be laughable. The idea, put forward yesterday, that Australian outrage at the doctored image of an Australian soldier with a bloodstained knife at an Afghan child’s throat is just cover for seeking to deflect public attention from war crimes is plainly silly. Australia commissioned the Brereton Report, and has made it impossible not to act on it. There’s no deflection. And much more transparency about legal processes from here-on than is ever likely to flow from the Chinese government.
Nor does anything in the Brereton report outstrip the brutally repressive human rights violations the Chinese government engages in against its own population, or the support it channels to international terrorism and the murders thus suborned.
Yet all this is well known. Why did our politicians play into Chinese hands and make such a fuss?
Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that no one in the Morrison administration seems competent to manage, let alone lead, international relations strategies in Australia’s national interests (rather than blindly doing the bidding of the USA).
Worse, the reference to nationalism is an ungracious but accurate reaction to the real problem at the heart of strained bilateral relations: the imbecilic, jingoistic, nationalist populism pursued so disastrously by America’s worst, most corrupt, least competent president in history. And emulated so sycophantically and unquestioningly by Scott Morrison.
In March, US president Donald Trump started to call the coronavirus the ‘Chinese virus’. It was a childish finger-pointing exercise to deflect from his own administration’s do-nothing approach to soaring coronavirus infections and deaths. Like faithful lapdogs, Morrison’s cabinet took its cues from Washington. In April, foreign minister Marise Payne (with zero foreign policy expertise) announced she would push for an independent international inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19, and days later, Morrison himself (with zero foreign policy expertise) announced that he would seek an international inquiry by the world health organization, with expanded powers, into the pandemic outbreak. All this just days away from such inquiries being agreed on through far more diplomatic means. To put it bluntly, Morrison sought to make political capital from entirely unnecessary Sinophobic rhetoric. In line with his predilection for a confused and deeply anti-democratic mixture of xenophobic, paternalist, nationalist, populist demagoguery.
Scott Morrison has exposed himself as a simple man who eschews independent thinking and policy development in favour of emulating what the American Republicans and British Tories can get away with. I’m sure he thinks this closeted fascism is actually a patriotic kind of ‘duffer jingoism’ – the ‘daggy dad’ schtick writ large.
What seems surprising is that no senior diplomatic staff offered to brief Morrison or Payne on the high-risk nature of such rhetoric, given China’s economic and military clout, and much more urgent concerns about expansionism. Moreover, how did Morrison and his cabinet not get advice on Chinese propaganda tactics and how to steer clear of a war of words with all the consequences we now see before us? Or was that advice offered and ignored?
In either case, I can clearly see the reason for Morrison’s grandstanding rather than deferring to career diplomats and other experts: staggering arrogance based on astonishing ignorance and incompetence. An apparent prerequisite for Liberal front-benchers.
As if to illustrate exactly these points, in October, the right wing extremist Tasmanian senator, Eric Abetz, turned the Australian upper house into a Star Chamber when demanding from several Australians of Chinese extraction an unconditional condemnation of the Chinese government. An egregiously authoritarian demand guaranteed to inflame tensions. For what purpose? To advance the Morrison administration’s jingoist nationalism with reckless disregard for the consequences. A move so contemptuous of national interests in favour of advancing party ideology that it borders on deliberate sabotage.
Abetz refused to recant, and Morrison didn’t make him. What did that signal to the Chinese? A bullying, loudmouth nation so shrinkingly insignificant in military terms as to be laughable in heavyweight circles nevertheless goading its most important trade partner.
With this history in mind, it becomes compelling to argue that Scott Morrison’s anti-intellectual penchant for ideology rather than pragmatic problem-solving caused this trade war. He is entirely responsible for the rift between Australia and China.
It seems that he cannot transcend his own character to provide leadership rather than a form of bureaucratic supervision and self-important rhetoric. Morrison’s character is visibly driven by his trademark, smug arrogance, his own preference for claiming beliefs are equivalent with facts and evidence, and a lifetime of getting away with dishonesty shrouded in secrecy and cover-ups (still no answers on his removal from two senior tourism positions, no consequence for commissioning the deliberately fraudulent Robodebt scam, no sanctions for sports rorts, Stuart Robert’s fraudulent funding of his wife’s online Pentecostal ministry with his internet allowance, Angus Taylor’s myriad shady business deals, climate change denialism, bushfire promises still not delivered on, and so on). I’ve always thought arrogance and some other sins can be tolerated if they are underpinned by a track record of competence, intellect, and better than average outcomes. Morrison has never shown any of those attributes or accomplishments.