Enemies, foreign and domestic, appear to be preoccupying the minds of our Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, and our Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, as they maintain their lonely patrols in the diplomatic cocktail circuit and the officers' messes. It's a pretty fair bet that the last place from which they expect a surprise attack is from Anthony Albanese, Penny Wong, Richard Marles or Mark Dreyfus, the members of Her Majesty's loyal opposition from whom one might expect intelligent criticism of Australian national security, defence and foreign policy.
It is not quite as though they are fast asleep, or even that they have formally decided to leave the space entirely to Scott Morrison and the Coalition. One can hear sometimes delicate criticisms, the more robustly offered the less they contain anything in the way of substance.
Labor defence spokesman Richard Marles, for example, has volunteered that he thinks that Australia sends China inconsistent messages, and that it is time for the relationship to be managed by "the adults in the room". Foreign spokeswoman Penny Wong is deeply suspicious of China's efforts to increase its influence in the world and multilateral bodies. She thinks, I think, that we should seek to do much the same, and without seeing everything through a US-China lens. Mark Dreyfus, no doubt, thinks we should defend our fundamental civil liberties, but only by moving a millimetre to the left of where the Coalition stands at any particular moment.
And Anthony Albanese? Well, he is not going to let himself be wedged by a cunning coalition. Nor be forced to fight on ground of the government's choosing. He does not want to be accused of being weak on protecting the nation. Swinging loosely over any national security round hole where the government dangles him, the instinct of this square peg is to immediately declare that the government's tendentious proposition, whatever it is, is not in issue: Labor will support its broad thrust. This is the sort of strategy over national security that worked so well for his predecessor, Bill Shorten, adding to popular impressions that he was less than straightforward or genuine. Albanese, elected leader in part because he had some genuine character, however rough-hewn, and conveyed a certain authenticity, has decided that the first step in being a leader is to stop being the thing that made him electorally attractive.
The essential Labor "small target" tactic on national security policy has a long history, but not a glorious one. It is not a history of success - ever. Gough Whitlam consciously crafted a foreign policy sharply at odds with the government of Billy McMahon, and was called a traitor for his pains for his promises about recognising China - at least until it emerged that President Nixon was at just the same time opening the diplomatic door. Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd had clear views on foreign policy, ones they were not scared to articulate.
Hawke may have been, for his time, more to the right than some in the party would have wanted, but he never ducked a debate on the subject, and no one could have said his policy was a just slightly pinker version of the policy of Malcolm Fraser. Keating came late to defence and foreign policy, but came to see the one he developed, in conjunction with Kim Beazley and Gareth Evans, as an essential part of Australia being a contributing citizen of the world. He also saw it as something that defined himself.
Kevin Rudd had a diplomatic background (indeed one steeped in matters Chinese) and came to power in part on an impression that he had a bold and confident view - different from an out-of-date Howard view about matters such as Barack Obama or world action on climate change - of how Australia could make the world a better place. No one ever accused him of kowtowing to China, even if he spoke the language. Gillard did not really have an international perspective on becoming prime minister, and, on doing so, shifted sharply from her old views and perspectives. But she did not look to coalition philosophers - and certainly not Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison - for strategy or tactics or basic approach.
Kim Beazley had, in government, and, later after his active political career, a formidable reputation on defence and foreign policy. But as Opposition leader he was advised by the many "stable geniuses" he had about him - mostly from the NSW Right - that Labor could not win government on such issues. This was in part because John Howard was so cunning in setting up obstacle courses and political wedges that would make Labor look "weak". Labor's forte was, of course, domestic and social policy - bar economic management - and it would win when these were the issues foremost in voter's minds.
It was Labor's fault that the small target strategy also let pass by default the argument that Labor was weak and profligate on economic policy and, while Beazley was finance minister, had left a terrible fiscal "black hole" on leaving office in 1996. [Indeed, it was of a size Howard, as treasurer, had left Hawke in 1983].
At Beazley's second showing, he looked a likely winner until the Tampa incident and then the World Trade Centre bombing on September 11, 2001, transformed the election into one on border security and national security. His excuse for defeat was that the nation, at a time of crisis, swings behind its leaders. The truth, rather, was that the electorate saw Beazley retreat from defining a Labor position, and came to think that Howard had been right in questioning whether Beazley had the "ticker" for the job of leadership.
Bill Shorten, once he became Opposition leader, followed the Beazley approach. He was given to avoiding being set up by the government, not least by Tony Abbott who did not hesitate to use national security policy in political warfare, continually attempting to establish "tests" Labor had to pass to prove that it was not as weak as he claimed. Abbott was greatly given to standing alongside military figures, security officials and police, surrounded by an ever-increasing number of flags. At each, in somewhat the present manner of Scott Morrison, he would announce some terrible impending threat to the national security, the risk of a fresh invasion of boat people, or an impending outbreak of jihadist terror. Each required urgent draconian action, if only to test Labor loyalty. On one occasion, Abbott wanted to send armed forces to secure the ground of a downed aircraft in contested territory in Ukraine. Not long before his leadership imploded, he was said to have demanded that his national security establishment provide him with a (public) national security crisis each week in the lead-up to an election.
The stable geniuses declared that Shorten had neatly navigated all the mined ground, avoiding the booby traps, and had neutralised issues - such as over boat people - the government was seeking to exploit for its political advantage. On such issues - to paraphrase Abbott - there was soon not a cigarette paper's worth of difference between Labor and Coalition policy. That is, of course, because Labor had adopted Coalition policy - not because it had used debate to force the Coalition into any sort of compromise or middle ground.
That's pretty much the strategy under Albanese, at least as adroit at avoiding being shot down, if only because Labor surrenders before shots are fired. But Shorten was never accused of having had any abiding belief he had not workshopped; Albanese, by contrast, was supposed to believe in things, and only rarely what conservatives thought. Albanese's reluctance to be drawn into an argument means that he has diminished opportunities, even in normal times, for "statesmanship", for standing on any sort of national stage, for being in any sort of visible dialogue with representatives of other nations. It's a reason why a few incoming prime ministers who had never before manifested much interest in international affairs suddenly realise the limelight it offers.
The smart ones - Morrison and Howard, for example - realise that it is not the international stage they are ascending. It is only a local pulpit, but it is one quite different from the usual political soapbox. When one affects a solemn face, a hand on one's chest or in forward salute, the crowd, and the opposition, will be muted, and dubious statements - even pure tosh - will be unchallenged. We are talking about the national security and transcending national interests after all. A perfect moment, in short, for the most crude politics. Not a time for forbearance, or decency, or telling the truth.
Barking at external monsters for domestic effect
The key influence on Australian foreign policy at the moment is not a more muscular or threatening China but the uncertainties in the region created by the erratic politics of Donald Trump. Most of these have been associated with trade war - a war in which Australia has a great interest, not the same as America's - in particular because of the triangular movement of money between China, the United States and Australia, and the flow of resources, manufactures, and intellectual property involved. But they also involve jostling between the US and China over influence in East Asia, South-East Asia and the Pacific as American power and influence has waned and a growing, confident and sometimes arrogant China has sought to fill the space America is vacating.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Trump had been using these tensions - quite real ones - for domestic American political purposes, including his re-election hopes. The theory is that the greater the appearance of threat or conflict, the more easily the American public can be persuaded to rally around the flag and the leader. (Though, on the other hand, Trump's reputation among some of his constituencies has turned on his promises to extricate the US from useless foreign wars.)
The headlines have not come from skirmishes or from one side or the other crossing some pre-declared line in the sand. They have turned both on words of belligerence by one party, and on how the other chooses to respond. In every case, the noises from each party have been mainly addressed to the local audience. When Trump speaks, he is talking to Americans. And likewise with spokesmen for China. They are playing to their own constituencies at home.
Likewise with Scott Morrison. A neat combination of politicians, political advisers and compliant bureaucrats is delivering to Morrison the weekly national security crisis. We can always rely on ASIO or the AFP, or some briefing given to News Ltd to give it the character of disinterested advice. One moment it is the cyber-threat. The next minute, China's political and economic domestic spying on Australia, a matter of deep concern because it is said to be almost reaching the quantity and the quality of our own spying on China and clandestine activity on China. These never turn on any immediate event so much as the government's political needs, including, often, the need for some distraction away from the latest political catastrophe, such as deaths in aged persons' homes. Officials rationalise their advocacy of the government's position on the basis of their permanent, and unaccountable agenda, as well as the fiction that the national interest is a bipartisan matter.
We can thus understand why Labor sees nothing much to complain about. It is never so piss-weak as when some sort of principle is involved.
The latest matter of deep concern involves China's efforts to gain influence and support from politicians, Labor and Liberal, and opinion formers, not least by generous contributions to political parties, or to institutes, associations or activities that are likely to promote China's interests.
This week Morrison decided that the big threat - warranting immediate legislation - involved arrangements made by state or local governments or by universities with foreign nations, provinces and cities, or between research foundations. Universities have long been called "autonomous'' institutions, since they are run by boards independent of government. Encouraged, moreover, both to find external sources of funds, and to forge strategic partnerships with foreign universities and research institutions. Many millions of federal government money assisted the development of such links, which were thought to massively increase the value, the quality and the quantity of university research.
Now, however, universities are seen as government instrumentalities, bound by government policy, and unable to investigate, at least with the assistance even of foreign students, anything that might produce evidence or arguments that might be out of kilter with the declared defence, diplomatic or national security policy of the government of the day.
Strictly, any arrangements with overseas public universities - such as, for example, between the ANU and Oxford, the Sorbonne, or the University of California, as well as the University of Beijing are covered. But everyone knows that it is China that is the prime target, and that any arrangements with universities run by white folk will be rubber-stamped. A new section in the department of foreign affairs - no doubt carved out of the African section - will scrutinise all such deals. There are thousands in existence, right down to sister-city arrangements. We do not know if or whether any opinions they form will be open and accountable, but apparently ministers - already keen players in cutting universities down to size - can cancel any deal of which they disapprove.
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What the government says it wants to avoid are research arrangements by which our academics are compromised, or our intellectual property wrongly transferred, or, perhaps, foreign students are allowed to learn high technology or military secrets. No doubt they will also cast a leery eye on government-to-university (or individual academic) grants of funds intended to encourage research into matters that might not otherwise be studied. They could be agents of influence for foreign ideas or ideologies given cover by connection to educational establishments.
While the government's power, under the external affairs part of the constitution, to do such monitoring cannot be doubted, it is not clear to me that the Commonwealth has the power to coerce state or local governments, let alone universities, on what it seems to want to do. This might be the occasion for finding yet another implied term - of academic freedom - in the constitution, to add to old doctrines of state immunities.
Meanwhile, according to The Australian - the Government Gazette on such matters - a second taskforce has been created under the umbrella of national security threat-specialist Mike Pezzullo. There will be a separate University Foreign Interference Taskforce to "identify and analyse emerging threats" and "provide support on research integrity and cyber security".
Peter Dutton, the responsible minister known for his appreciation of intellectual endeavour, pure and applied, has said the new class monitor would be headed by a senior ASIO officer with support from the AFP, AUSTRAC, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Office of National Intelligence and the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation. One can expect that this sinister sounding body of spooks supposed applying "intelligence" to the activities of the academy, will be free of any inconvenient accountability, or need to rationalise any of their conclusions in open debate, or any inclination to promote academic freedom or the pursuit of knowledge. For most, but particularly the AFP, the basic attitude to the free flow of ideas can be gauged by the diligence applied to the prevention of journalism, and the covering up of matters embarrassing to the government.
I have remarked before that if Labor in government had had the guts to spend as much as the Coalition in fighting the pandemic, a Morrison-led opposition would be screaming at the irresponsibility, the profligacy and the defiance of fundamental economic laws. Likewise, were a Labor government attempting to coerce governments and instrumentalities at all levels of the federation into singing from the same song-sheet, and suppressing dissent along the Home Affairs model, the Morrison opposition would be proclaiming it very sinister, totalitarian in outlook, authoritarian, contrary to fundamental freedoms and, probably, the beginning of the end, if not the end, of democracy and free speech.
We can thus understand why Labor sees nothing much to complain about. It is never so piss-weak as when some sort of principle is involved.
Seen as the next step in ramping up, for partisan purposes, public anxiety and panic about the evil intentions of China, the test may prove to be whether anything China has been doing has been much different from attempts by the American military -industrial and university complex with computer research, or efforts by the Ramsay Foundation to control what is taught while inculcating young minds in the glories of western civilisation.
Most donors, or partners in research programs, seek influence, and, often, a share of any spoils - and the more that China develops as a great economy, with an enormous educational and research establishment, the more likely it is to look for partnerships. Hitherto, government has seen that as an opportunity for Australia.
Perhaps there should be greater transparency - but I very much doubt the independence of judgment of even the leaders of the agencies in Dutton's "UFIT (or else)" straitjacket. And that's a problem long before any of their "findings" are put in the hands of people such as Dutton, or Morrison, or other warriors in the government, for use in shutting up and shutting down the tertiary education system.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times