While Stephen Smith was Australia’s foreign minister during the Rudd government from 2007 to 2010 he instructed his department to banish the phrase “punching above our weight” from speech notes and official correspondence.
Smith hated the cliche, which has been strewn in the statements and utterances of Australian foreign and prime ministers for decades.
There was a simple rationale behind this small decree: while a middle power with serious clout at tables such as the G20, Australia should never apologise for “punching” at what is our natural and appropriate “weight”.
Smith left the portfolio but this phrase did not die. It is still in usage and continues to frame the mindset at the highest levels of the Morrison government.
Australia might be a middle power which can and does exert influence and sway at international forums but that doesn’t mean we matter as much as we might think.
An example of such global dreaming about our importance is found at the 2009 United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen, where then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd worked tirelessly to appear to be at the centre of things.
Media reports at the time portrayed Rudd working through the night to drag China into an international consensus, leaving the Labor PM privately slamming the Beijing leadership as “rat-f***ers”.
A new, first person account of that conference is contained in former US President Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. Obama covers the Copenhagen conference over eight pages.
He describes the tortured negotiations with China to get an agreed text on future action, outlining discussions with the hold-outs – China’s Wen Jiaboa, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, Brazil’s Lula da Silva and India’s Manmohan Singh – and the people the president calls the “key leaders”, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown.
There’s no mention of Rudd or Australia’s role in the conference. In fact nowhere in Obama’s 700 page volume is our country’s presence or performances referred to. So much for punching at all, regardless of weight.
The current prime minister has been reminded this week that weight divisions matter in international relations and national performance matters when it comes to qualifying for a place at discussions.
Scott Morrison scoffs at the importance of this weekend’s tele-conference hosted by Britain’s Boris Johnson and held on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement.
He wasn’t scoffing a few weeks ago when he had word of his proposed speech telegraphed in a front page report in the Nine/Fairfax newspapers.
This glowing account had Morrison boasting Australia would meet its international targets on emissions reduction without using credits carried over from commitments made under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
While Morrison loves to laud himself and his government’s efforts on emissions reduction, other countries, particularly European nations, didn’t share the high regard for what Australia has done.
Marking us down for bringing nothing new to the table, the conference organisers decided Australia’s performance wasn’t good enough to warrant Morrison getting a speaking spot.
This might hurt those who cared what the rest of the world thinks. Not so the present national leader, who proclaimed Australia’s climate and energy policy would be set domestically and not offered “to get a speaking slot at some international summit”.
He shrugged at a mention of not being granted a speaking role by New South Wales independent MP Zali Steggall, who asked about the weekend conference.
“The member thinks what is relevant is whether you speak at summits or not,” Morrison told Parliament. “That is not something that troubles me or concerns me one way or the other.”
It was a classic performance by Morrison, who takes having your cake and eating it to new levels of confected guilelessness. In fact, Morrison is the kind of politician who would eat his cake, have some left over afterwards and reach across the room and take someone else’s cake while smiling without shame.
Morrison has delivered his “no carryover credits” speech anyway – nudging his way aboard the speaker’s list at a Pacific Islands Climate Forum on Friday night.
Hypocrisy-Morrison not invited to speak at global climate action Summit being a climate laggard seeks to speak at Pacific Islands Climate Forum about how well he is doing with climate. Their concern is that his inaction is seriously failing them. He just doesn’t get it either way
— John Hewson (@JohnRHewson) December 10, 2020
It was a fitting way to be reminded of what weight division Australia is at home in as far as performance on climate policy is concerned.
It’s been an extraordinary year for international relations, with almost all of the conferences, summits and bilateral meetings being held by teleconferencing.
Morrison has jumped into this Zoom world with relish. He was so proud of himself in those early weeks of virtual talkfests he managed to have one senior press gallery journalist briefed on his skill at dialing in digitally. What was essentially a story of ‘man discovers FaceTime’ appeared as a great breakthrough in distance diplomacy.
Morrison has excelled in this world of screentime international relations, which suits his aversion to close-up scrutiny.
In the pre-pandemic days, world leaders would attend the many conferences and summits with a media retinue in tow. Journalists could take the temperature of the gathering and read the room.
When it’s all done remotely, the leader can control the message by issuing a transcript, providing a carefully curated read-out of proceedings and frame the self-styled achievements.
It’s a style and modus operandi that suits a control-focused leader like Morrison. He can portray himself as a great international player without being held to the usual scrutiny with which prime ministers in times past have contended.
Looking at Australia/China relations – an area where Morrison has been unable to escape close and unforgiving attention – those otherwise self-scripted accounts of the prime minister’s strutting on the world stage might be a great deal more form than substance.