Finance Compromising Australia for political points under a shadow of China threat
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Compromising Australia for political points under a shadow of China threat

China threat to Australia
The spook industry has taken control of the Australia/China relationship, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: Getty/TND
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Nearly all Australians last month missed the most important piece of journalism yet to examine the origins of and motives for Australia’s botched diplomacy with China – it was behind the Australian Financial Review‘s paywall.

The 9000 words spread over three parts were so good the usual China hawks and defence and security industry promoters seem to have run away from it. Sometimes being ignored can be the biggest compliment.

Yet, when a couple of politicians acknowledged one of the core conclusions of the series – that domestic political advantage is now the key driver of our China policy – the knives were quickly out.

The series, starting with How Australia got badly out in front on China, was painstakingly researched and written by Max Suich, a former deputy editor of the AFR and editor-in-chief of the Fairfax Sydney papers.

It’s old-school journalism. Multiple trusted and trusting sources sought out and cross-checked over months, in contrast to retailing lines pushed by anonymous individuals and organisations with their own agendas.

I can’t adequately distil those 9000 words in this space, but that core message has had impact beyond a few AFR readers.

Two days after the first instalment, shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong called out the Morrison government for “deliberately encouraging anxiety” about war with China for domestic political gain.

On Wednesday Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese took up the theme in his Minerals Council speech. 

“Mr Morrison is making the grave error of prioritising his domestic political interests over Australia’s national interests,” Albanese said.

“Australia needs more strategy and less politics when it comes to managing our differences with China.”

That brought swift retaliation; Defence Minister Peter Dutton claiming Mr Albanese’s comments were not in the national interest, “seeking to undermine the position of this country”.

Yes, we’re at that stage. Criticise the government’s incompetence and you’re a traitor.

The Committee for Un-Australian Activities can’t be far behind.

Never mind that there’s a massive disconnect between what the Defence Minister says and what he does. As one of Suich’s sources with deep knowledge of defence policy making said: “If the Morrison government was genuine in its talk about war with China, it would be criminally negligent not to be spending 5 to 6 per cent of GDP on defence. Doubling our 100 strike aircraft. Not waiting till 2030-2040 for submarines.”

Suich divides the devolution of our China policy at the urging of security and intelligence types into three stages: “Push Back” since late 2016 followed by “Call Out” and finally “Out in Front” of our allies and other democratic nations in needling, then confronting China – a policy that became more strident after Scott Morrison took over from Malcolm Turnbull.

Part of what seems to dismay Suich and his sources is that we have fallen into the current mess by misadventure, by negligence, by policy creep.

“There has been a note of the casual, the she’ll-be-right, the scary shoot-from-the-lip, even insouciance, in the development of our China policy over the past four years,” he writes.

“While we dramatically changed our approach, we did not define a policy objective for the new relationship with China or a strategy to achieve it. Nor did we thoroughly review alternative options.

“We elevated anger about Chinese activities in Australia and latent ministerial hostility towards China, turning threadbare slogans into policy.”

I do disservice to Max Suich’s series not to canvass his research into all the steps leading to the loss of traditional thoughtful policy, including the Xi impact and the issue of our fear of abandonment by the US. But the core now is that Coalition ministers and advisers were quick to grasp the domestic political advantages of a China threat narrative.

It played to the Coalition’s “national security” polling strength. The ALP could be wedged as a friend of Beijing. Washington would approve.

Suich quotes a pro-assertiveness insider involved in administering our approach to China: “Paul Keating claimed that if the security agencies were running foreign policy, ‘the nutters are in charge’ … discount Paul’s characteristic language about nutters… he was fundamentally right!”

Three senior policy sources all pointed to the China threat being exaggerated by “an unprecedented and sophisticated campaign” of leaked ‘scoops’.

“This narrative submerged sceptical reporting and established an environment in the public service where sceptics are silenced.”

Suich doesn’t quite say it, but I shall: The spook industry has effectively captured Australia’s mainstream media. They have become tools in a dead-end game when the governments of Australia and China cannot concede errors or back down, the arguments on both sides retreating into slogans.

Stories have been beaten up, but it is not known who applied the Mixmaster – the media, their sources or the Coalition.

And letting the “nutters” run policy comes at a greater cost than the financial hit suffered by the wine and lobster industries.

Suich lists our civil liberties becoming further constrained, allowing the security services to extend their powers and budgets beyond those they reaped from Islamic terrorism.

We have no journalists in China, partly because of an earlier raid by ASIO on Chinese media representatives here.

The home and the NSW Parliament office of a Labor backbencher were raided under the lights of tipped-off media cameras, with no significant result yet revealed, the Parliament complacent about the raid.

Chinese Australians, going on anecdotal evidence, have started to see no future in the public service. Connections with relatives in China are under surveillance.

It’s a worry to surrender the subtleties of diplomatic and economic policy to spooks and warriors. The old “to a hammer, everything is a nail” rule applies.

If the ASIO chief is to be a defacto DFAT heavy, it would be nice if he or she had much broader and more nuanced experience than being a cyber nerd.

And talking of DFAT, the Australian has reported that the new DFAT secretary will be Kathryn Campbell, a Major General in the army reserve apparently without previous diplomatic experience but was Department of Human Services secretary during the Robodebt debacle.

She memorably said she did not know what Robodebt was.

While the security cheer squad hasn’t taken on Max Suich’s analysis, it  received praise from others for airing an increasingly restricted view, including a letter from former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans:

“Talking very loudly while carrying a very small stick – and one more likely to poke our own eye than anyone else’s – is not intelligent diplomacy.”

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