News National Dennis Atkins: After a hellish week, Morrison plays his ‘China card’

Dennis Atkins: After a hellish week, Morrison plays his ‘China card’

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At the end of one of Scott Morrison’s worst weeks since the summer of firestorms, the Prime Minister has played what he hopes is a get out of jail card.

With Newspoll most likely in the field for its regular update, Morrison moved to put some distance between the outcome – due at the beginning of next week – and an unwelcome trio of developments.

Most damaging has been the awkward handling of the mistakes, missteps and poor preparation in managing aged care and COVID-19, particularly in Melbourne.

The all-at-sea performance of Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck, has only deepened the impact and damaged community confidence.

Added to this has been a set of serious, documented allegations of branch stacking and political shenanigans in Victoria by senior federal Liberals, including one minister on Morrison’s front bench.

Finally, on cue, the Nationals have revived a leadership destabilisation campaign against Deputy PM Michael McCormack.

Embattled Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck has been stripped of his coronavirus responsibilities, but not his post. Photo: AAP

No wonder Morrison revved up his “in case of emergency” plan to audit all deals between any sub-national level of government or official body such as universities and foreign governments or their agencies.

Primarily aimed at the embattled Victorian Labor Government and its memorandum of understanding agreement with China which endorses the Belt and Road international infrastructure and influence scheme, this planned legislation also spreads a wide net that places Australia on the front line of the Great Decoupling.

This break of diplomatic, commercial and strategic ties between the West and China is the other big story of 2020.

Scott Morrison took a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook by putting China on notice.

It had already been underway at the urging of the Donald Trump-led United States more than a year ago and was pushed along by the emergence of the novel coronavirus from Wuhan.

For Australia, this has reached a stage which should cause businesses here to be not just alert, but very alarmed.

The Morrison Government has taken a page directly from Washington’s book by putting China on notice over its ties to Australian state and local government, as well as tertiary education and other public institutions.

Morrison made one his now-familiar dramatic media drops – this time it was an assertion of national interest in the name of sovereignty.

These big announcements usually amount to much less than the promise in the press release – earlier ones featured a recycled defence spending boost and a deal to make a deal on a COVID-19 vaccine.

But this China gambit has a dangerous edge to it.

Despite protests from Morrison that he’s just protecting sovereignty and what he’s planning isn’t aimed at any particular country, such as China, the behind-the-hand whispers are clear. This is about China.

Wang Xining told the National Press Club that Australia had hurt China’s feelings. Photo: AAP

The Trump administration is the major player in this development, although the strategy is now bipartisan in Washington.

In May this year, a bill to forcibly de-list Chinese companies from US equities markets if they refuse to open their books to American regulators was passed without dissent in the Senate.

No one can argue with the framework of what Morrison is doing – every one acknowledges the national government must have ultimate say on foreign affairs. We can all get behind the concept of national interest and sovereignty is surely a given.

However, as with so much of what Morrison does, the detail carries much greater weight than the rhetoric.

We haven’t had the detail but it will doubtless be smothered by generalisation, putting the onus on how things are interpreted and implemented. There could be months before anything actually happens – long after memories have faded.

In Washington, the decoupling with China is proceeding with little, if any, regard for the commercial consequences.

When Trump announced he was going to force US companies to sever ties with China’s internet messaging app WeChat, he was warned this could carry a crippling cost, with tech giant Apple at the top of the list.

According to The Financial Times, Trump’s reaction was dismissive and blunt. “Whatever,” was what he reportedly said.

It’s the kind of comment that alarms business and political leaders watching these global developments.

The Morrison move on foreign deals and agreements – with its piquant flavour of Australia First – has provoked some sharp words from former Western Australian Liberal Premier Colin Barnett, someone with almost three decades of experience in dealing with China.

“I think to have such a poor relationship with our major trading partner is not something the federal government should be proud of,” Barnett said this week.

“This is a very, very poor response to the deterioration. We have poked the panda. There’s no doubt about that. Australia has shown an immaturity in its relationship.”

Barnett says Australia has to deal with China and confront its many shortcomings and transgressions but this shouldn’t happen in a way which threatens trade and commercial links.

Morrison is in danger of doing just that. This is not a time to say “whatever”.

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