Turn­bull used to head off re­gional dis­trust

Mal­colm Turn­bull’s re­la­tion­ship with the In­done­sian pres­i­dent is be­ing used to shore up free trade ne­go­ti­a­tions as Scott Mor­ri­son hopes to con­vey sta­bil­ity abroad. Karen Mid­dle­ton re­ports.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son sug­gested in par­lia­ment this week that ap­point­ing his pre­de­ces­sor Mal­colm Turn­bull to rep­re­sent Aus­tralia at the up­com­ing Our Ocean, Our Legacy con­fer­ence in Bali was an idea that came from In­done­sian pres­i­dent Joko Wi­dodo.

Mor­ri­son said on Wed­nes­day that when he met the pres­i­dent in Bo­gor on Au­gust 31, a week af­ter be­com­ing prime min­is­ter, Wi­dodo in­di­cated “that the for­mer prime min­is­ter had ex­pressed his will­ing­ness to at­tend that sum­mit”.

“We dis­cussed the is­sue, Pres­i­dent Wi­dodo and I, and we thought it would be a good op­por­tu­nity if the for­mer prime min­is­ter were able to at­tend that sum­mit, given their very strong, close work­ing re­la­tion­ship,” Mor­ri­son said.

The Sat­ur­day Pa­per has con­firmed it was an­other three weeks be­fore Mor­ri­son wrote to Turn­bull, on Septem­ber 20, ask­ing him to rep­re­sent Aus­tralia at the sum­mit.

As Mor­ri­son’s re­ported con­ver­sa­tion with Wi­dodo sug­gests, Turn­bull is un­der­stood to have pre­vi­ously been con­sid­er­ing at­tend­ing the sum­mit as prime min­is­ter but had not con­firmed.

Mor­ri­son made an­other re­quest in his Septem­ber 20 let­ter, ap­peal­ing for the ser­vices of the re­cently re­moved prime min­is­ter – who was by then on an ex­tended hol­i­day in New York – to rep­re­sent Aus­tralia four days later, on Septem­ber 24, at the first meet­ing of the new in­ter­na­tional High-Level Panel for a Sus­tain­able Ocean Econ­omy.

The meet­ing in New York co­in­cided

with the yearly lead­ers’ week at the United Na­tions, to which Mor­ri­son had sent the new for­eign min­is­ter, Marise Payne. But he asked Turn­bull to at­tend the oceans panel.

Be­fore Turn­bull lost the prime min­is­ter­ship, the Nor­we­gian gov­ern­ment had in­vited him to join the panel, which it had es­tab­lished, and Mor­ri­son asked in his let­ter if he would ful­fil that com­mit­ment and if he would at­tend the Bali con­fer­ence on Oc­to­ber 29 and 30 on Aus­tralia’s be­half.

Separately, Mor­ri­son also asked if Turn­bull would rep­re­sent Aus­tralia at an­other event in New York as­so­ci­ated with UN lead­ers’ week on Septem­ber

26, pro­mot­ing the “to­bacco-free fi­nance pledge”, which in­volves 85 global cor­po­ra­tions vow­ing not to in­vest in the to­bacco in­dus­try.

Turn­bull’s pres­ence at these events al­lows Aus­tralia to pro­mote a busi­nes­sas-usual im­age on the world stage in the wake of its fourth sud­den midterm change of prime min­is­ter in eight years, a change that has again left other coun­tries per­plexed.

Turn­bull ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion to rep­re­sent Aus­tralia in Bali. How­ever the trip has an­gered his Lib­eral Party crit­ics, who are sug­gest­ing his non-par­lia­men­tary sta­tus and re­fusal ahead of last week­end’s Went­worth by­elec­tion to cam­paign ac­tively for the Lib­eral can­di­date, Dave Sharma, mean he does not de­serve what they are call­ing a re­ward.

The Sat­ur­day Pa­per has con­firmed that Turn­bull will not be paid to at­tend any of the three events, al­though the fed­eral gov­ern­ment will cover travel costs for the Bali trip.

This week, a spokesper­son for the In­done­sian em­bassy told The Sat­ur­day Pa­per that the de­ci­sion on who to send to the sum­mit was Aus­tralia’s alone.

“The in­vi­ta­tion was to the gov­ern­ment, not in a per­sonal ca­pac­ity,” the spokesper­son said.

“If the for­mer prime min­is­ter comes to the oceans con­fer­ence it will be be­cause the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment has asked him.”

In par­lia­ment, Mor­ri­son de­fended the de­ci­sion, which he said was taken “weeks and weeks ago”.

“I will al­ways put the diplo­matic and na­tional in­ter­est of Aus­tralia ahead of any other con­sid­er­a­tions,” he said on Wed­nes­day. “What I will do is act in the na­tional in­ter­est of Aus­tralia, and I look for­ward to the for­mer prime min­is­ter be­ing able to rep­re­sent us on that oc­ca­sion.”

Un­der La­bor ques­tion­ing, Mor­ri­son was forced to deny a re­port in Syd­ney’s The Daily Tele­graph that fol­low­ing the Lib­eral back­lash he was “done with” Turn­bull and may dump him as en­voy to the Bali con­fer­ence. He said the re­port was false.

Wi­dodo and Turn­bull be­came good friends in the three years of Turn­bull’s prime min­is­ter­ship and Wi­dodo was one of the po­lit­i­cal fig­ures who con­tacted him af­ter he was ousted to ex­press con­do­lences, con­fu­sion and con­cern.

In light of that close re­la­tion­ship, Mor­ri­son de­cid­ing to re­scind the

Turn­bull in­vi­ta­tion and send some­one else of lesser sta­tus in­stead could be seen as a snub to Wi­dodo. And given that re­la­tions with In­done­sia were tested last week af­ter Mor­ri­son an­nounced a sud­den shift in Aus­tralia’s Mid­dle East pol­icy and one on which In­done­sia has a strongly di­ver­gent view, the prime min­is­ter can’t af­ford that.

So, rather than the gov­ern­ment do­ing Turn­bull a favour, it ap­pears to be the other way around.

Mor­ri­son’s sud­den an­nounce­ment on Tues­day last week that he was con­sid­er­ing mov­ing Aus­tralia’s em­bassy in Is­rael from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to recog­nise it as Is­rael’s cap­i­tal, rip­pled across the world, be­ing an is­sue at the heart of long­stand­ing un­rest be­tween the Is­raeli and Pales­tinian peo­ple, and a ma­jor stick­ing point in the peace process.

In­done­sia op­poses such a move and is close to the Pales­tinian Author­ity, whose for­eign min­is­ter was vis­it­ing Jakarta as Mor­ri­son made his an­nounce­ment.

The move prompted a terse se­ries of What­sApp mes­sages – sub­se­quently leaked – from In­done­sia’s For­eign Min­is­ter Retno Mar­sudi to her Aus­tralian coun­ter­part, Marise Payne, ex­press­ing dis­may and ask­ing un­suc­cess­fully if the an­nounce­ment could at least be de­layed un­til her Pales­tinian guest de­parted.

In Bali, Turn­bull will hold a side­line meet­ing with Wi­dodo, where the for­mer prime min­is­ter is ex­pected to seek as­sur­ances from his friend that ne­go­ti­a­tions on a free trade agree­ment will con­tinue to progress in the wake of the Jerusalem dis­agree­ment.

La­bor and the Greens have con­demned Mor­ri­son’s an­nounce­ment as driven by do­mes­tic pol­i­tics, given it was made ahead of the by­elec­tion in Turn­bull’s old seat of Went­worth, which has the high­est pro­por­tion of Jewish vot­ers of all Aus­tralian elec­torates, and on the rec­om­men­da­tion of Lib­eral can­di­date Sharma, formerly Aus­tralia’s am­bas­sador to Is­rael. Mor­ri­son de­nied a link to Went­worth, which the Lib­eral Party lost to in­de­pen­dent Ker­ryn Phelps.

But in Se­nate es­ti­mates hear­ings this week, un­der ques­tion­ing from shadow for­eign min­is­ter Penny Wong, Marise Payne said she first dis­cussed the pos­si­ble em­bassy move with the prime min­is­ter when he phoned her on Sun­day of last week, the day be­fore some me­dia were briefed and two days be­fore it was an­nounced.

Depart­ment of For­eign Af­fairs sec­re­tary, Frances Adam­son, con­firmed her depart­ment’s ad­vice had not been sought be­fore the em­bassy de­ci­sion was taken.

Adam­son was asked if she still held the view, ex­pressed in June, that the United States’ de­ci­sion to move its em­bassy to Jerusalem ear­lier this year was un­help­ful.

“It re­mains my view that the peace process is very dif­fi­cult and that the em­bassy move has not as­sisted the peace process,” Adam­son said.

She told the Se­nate com­mit­tee on Thurs­day that she first be­came aware at lunchtime the day be­fore the an­nounce­ment that the prime min­is­ter was con­sid­er­ing a sim­i­lar move.

Ad­vice from Aus­tralia’s se­cu­rity agen­cies pro­vided in the wake of the US move – and re­it­er­ated last week – was that it would pose a se­cu­rity risk, in­clud­ing to Aus­tralian diplo­mats in the Mid­dle East.

In a Se­nate es­ti­mates hear­ing on Wed­nes­day, Aus­tralian De­fence Force chief, Gen­eral An­gus Camp­bell, said mil­i­tary chiefs had found out af­ter the me­dia were briefed. Pressed by La­bor on whether he would pre­fer to be no­ti­fied in ad­vance, Camp­bell even­tu­ally said: “Yes, se­na­tor.”

At the same time as Camp­bell was field­ing ques­tions on the is­sue in Par­lia­ment House, for­mer for­eign min­is­ter Julie Bishop was down the hill at the Hy­att Ho­tel, ad­dress­ing the Women in Na­tional Se­cu­rity con­fer­ence or­gan­ised by the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity’s na­tional se­cu­rity col­lege.

Speak­ing on “the fu­ture of power”, Bishop took is­sue with “some lead­ers who see an op­por­tu­nity for po­lit­i­cal gain by em­brac­ing pop­ulist stances”.

“This is a very com­plex is­sue for politi­cians be­cause gov­ern­ments want their poli­cies to be sup­ported,” Bishop said. “Gov­ern­ments need to be pop­u­lar be­cause in a democ­racy you need the vot­ers to elect you. But we must ques­tion whether poli­cies that are su­per­fi­cially at­trac­tive to sec­tions of the com­mu­nity ac­tu­ally have any long-term ben­e­fits or are they in fact detri­men­tal? And his­tory has shown that they are.”

She listed pro­tec­tion­ism, na­tion­al­ism, in­dus­try sub­sidi­s­a­tion and a grow­ing wel­fare state and said there were “ex­am­ples close to home”, nom­i­nat­ing the Aus­tralian Coun­cil of Trade Unions sec­re­tary, Sally McManus, as a pro­po­nent of such.

But her speech was widely in­ter­preted as also be­ing a mes­sage to her own side about mak­ing po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent de­ci­sions while ig­nor­ing the broader im­pli­ca­tions.

De­scrib­ing what she called “a cri­sis in democ­racy” across the world, Bishop ques­tioned the ba­sis upon which “those in power” were mak­ing de­ci­sions.

“This is where the fu­ture of power be­comes crit­i­cal be­cause lead­ers must be chal­lenged: are these poli­cies, are your ac­tions for the longer-term ben­e­fit of your cit­i­zens and your na­tion, or are they for short-term po­lit­i­cal gain?”

Bishop ref­er­enced the is­sue of asy­lum-seeker pol­icy and what she called “the great­est pub­lic pol­icy fail­ure in re­cent times” – La­bor’s eas­ing of border pro­tec­tion poli­cies upon tak­ing gov­ern­ment in 2007, lead­ing to 52,000 asy­lum seek­ers head­ing for Aus­tralia and end­ing up in off­shore de­ten­tion cen­tres and at least 1200 drown­ing at sea.

She said the cur­rent gov­ern­ment was still deal­ing with the con­se­quences.

A Se­nate com­mit­tee was told this week that 11 chil­dren had been trans­ferred from Nauru to Aus­tralia on Mon­day for med­i­cal treat­ment and that 52 re­mained, of whom 13 had par­ents who had been given ad­verse se­cu­rity as­sess­ments by the US. It was un­clear how their sta­tus would be re­solved.

This week, Mor­ri­son re­jected a pro­posed La­bor com­pro­mise that would see some of the refugee and asy­lum­seeker chil­dren held with their fam­i­lies on Nauru trans­ferred to New Zealand, in line with a long­stand­ing of­fer from the lat­ter to take them.

Last week, also ahead of the Went­worth by­elec­tion, he said un­ex­pect­edly that he was pre­pared to re­open con­sid­er­a­tion of the of­fer if La­bor would sup­port ex­ist­ing pro­posed gov­ern­ment leg­is­la­tion to pre­vent them – or any oth­ers who had been pre­vi­ously held in off­shore de­ten­tion – from ever be­ing able to then travel freely to Aus­tralia as cit­i­zens of their new coun­tries.

The plight of refugees and asy­lum seek­ers rated highly among vot­ers in the eco­nom­i­cally con­ser­va­tive but so­cially lib­eral seat of Went­worth.

This week, La­bor’s shadow im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter Shayne Neu­mann wrote to Im­mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter David Cole­man propos­ing con­di­tional sup­port.

The pro­posal would nar­row the scope of the leg­is­la­tion so it ap­plied only to those go­ing to New Zealand and re­flected the con­di­tions of the agree­ment reached with the US to take 1200 refugees. Neu­mann’s let­ter said the ex­ist­ing leg­is­la­tion was “ridicu­lous over­reach” and the com­pro­mise would pre­vent the trans­fer­ees mov­ing to Aus­tralia but would get them off Nauru im­me­di­ately.

But two days af­ter the Went­worth by­elec­tion, now set to send Mor­ri­son into mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment, he said he would not “horse­trade” and re­jected La­bor’s pro­posal out­right.

New Zealand has al­ready raised con­cerns about cre­at­ing “sec­ond-class cit­i­zens”.

In her speech, Julie Bishop – who this week re­ceived a spe­cial award for lead­er­ship from the US gov­ern­ment – broad­ened her mes­sage be­yond just her La­bor op­po­nents.

“Con­se­quences, con­se­quences,” the for­mer for­eign min­is­ter said. “Lead­ers and de­ci­sion-mak­ers must have re­gard to the con­se­quences – in­evitable or un­wit­ting con­se­quences – and be aware that the con­se­quences will oc­cur as a re­sult of your de­ci­sions.”

There was no miss­ing what she

• meant.


KAREN MID­DLE­TON is The Sat­ur­day Pa­per’s chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent.

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