Morrison’s adventures in diplomacy

“Scott has always had a reputation for telling lies” (Malcolm Turnbull)

Barry Humphries created the character Sir Les Patterson as a gauche Australian diplomat, projecting an image of Australia to the world as a nation barely qualifying as civilized. When he played the role Humphries must have felt at times that he was over-emphasising Patterson’s crass insensitivity and offensiveness, but he needn’t fear, for Sir Les has been upstaged by our current Prime Minister.

Morrison’s defenders may be downplaying the significance of Emmanuel Macron’s calling him a liar, but as Romain Fathi of Flinders University points out, writing in The Conversation,  Macron’s accusation was carefully planned: it was no off-the-cuff remark: “I don’t think, I know” – what makes Macron’s comments about Morrison so extraordinary and so worrying.

Morrison and his defenders are trying to portray Macron’s words as some petulant reaction to losing the submarine deal, but Malcolm Turnbull makes it clear that in Morrison’s behaviour in relation to the submarine contract, he “has sacrificed Australian honour, Australian security, and Australian sovereignty”.  (ABC Breakfast: Morrison has "reputation for telling lies", according to former PM – 4 minutes.)

It’s not only our relationship with France – a key member of NATO – that Morrison has damaged. As Anthony Galloway, writing in The Age explains, Morrison’s gauche and secretive behaviour has not helped US-France relations, and has damaged our relations with the US: Australian officials fear leaking Macron’s texts crossed a line amid US tension.  In his address to the National Press Club on Wednesday Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault drove home the point that countries don’t leak one another’s correspondence. It’s not only diplomatically rude, it’s also foolish, for it sends a signal to the world that Australia is not to be trusted.  Widely reported in the press  (for example by The Guardian’s Daniel Hurst) is Thebault’s warning:

You don’t behave like this on personal exchanges of leaders who are allies. But maybe it’s just confirmation that we were never seen as an ally.

But doing so also sends a very worrying signal for all heads of state – beware, in Australia, there will be leaks, and what you say in confidence to your partners will be eventually used and weaponised against you one day.”

Perhaps the most insightful analysis of Macron’s conflict with Morrison is provided by the ABC’s Andrew Probyn: After leaking the French President's private text messages, the price of peace for Morrison will be very expensive. Maybe the main issue for Macron (and by implication other EU leaders) was about securing US support for NATO:  “Reasserting alignment with a strategic ally in Europe has proven to be more valuable to America than any advantage it may have gained from the toppling of a $90 billion naval contract” Probyn writes, explaining how Morrison walked right into a trap. If Probyn’s analysis is right, Morrison’s AUKUS deal has weakened our security alliances with both the US and the EU, leaving us with only a flimsy deal with the UK – a waning power on the world stage.

Although some commentators suggest that Australians will see this as an attack by some horrible foreigner on Australia, Macron has stressed that it is about Morrison’s behaviour. It is not an attack on us, except to the extent that a thin majority of us, three years ago, were sufficiently gullible to elect him and his cronies to office.

Don’t forget the submarines

It’s easy to forget that AUKUS is really about submarines, but there is a great deal we don’t know about the deal. What does it mean for our naval defences, for our defence sovereignty, for our foreign relations, for our defence manufacturing and maintenance capabilities?  Does it mean anything, in fact, or is it just one of Morrison’s announcements?

On last week’s Saturday ExtraSubmarine shambles – Geraldine Doogue interviewed Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Alan Behm of The Australia Institute on these questions. There is still a great deal we don’t know, but we will be dependent on our dated but refurbished Collins Class submarines for a long time.  (16 minutes)

Regional grants

The New South Wales ICAC inquiry into the Berejiklian Government’s dealings with Wagga MP Daryl Maguire carries at least one clear message: neither the state Coalition Government nor Gladys Berejiklian herself would have been in the current situation had regional grants been administered in a way that left final allocation to public servants, guided and directed by clear criteria. Politicians befriend other politicians, and it would be  easier for a minister, pressured by a friend or colleague to do a favour, to say “no” when he or she has no discretion.

Perhaps such a consideration has guided state Premier Dominic Perrottet to announce a review into grants administration. The review team is to “focus on ensuring grants programs administered by the NSW Government achieve value for public money, are robust in their planning and design, and adopt key principles of transparency, accountability, and probity”.  The ABC’s Sarah Gerathy suggests that Perrottet is also responding to revelations showing that about 82 percent of renewable energy grants to schools went to schools in government-held seats.

Some may misrepresent integrity commissions, such as the New South Wales ICAC, as kangaroo courts, but their function is to inquire, not to prosecute, and their inquiries can provide a stimulus for administrative reform.

At the Commonwealth level, however, in the absence of any integrity commission, nothing has come of the Auditor General’s exposure of corrupt processes in the allocation of grants to commuter car parks and regional sporting bodies. There has been nothing to prod Morrison to set up a similar inquiry at the Commonwealth level.


Why is our rate of imprisonment increasing, even while the homicide rate, an indicator of the most serious of violent crimes, has been on a strong downward trend for 35 years? 

The Productivity Commission has published a research paper Australia’s prison dilemma. This rise in imprisonment results partly from changes in the types of crime we are committing – less homicide, less robbery, more sexual assault (certainly more reported sexual assault), more drug trafficking.  It is also a result of state governments’ tough-on-crime policies.

Our imprisonment rate is already high in comparison with most prosperous “developed” countries (the US has the honour of having the highest rate), and our rate of imprisonment is growing faster than in any other such country. (Among OECD countries only Turkey and Colombia have higher rates of growth than Australia.)

Readers will not be surprised to learn about the vast over-representation of indigenous Australians in prison: they comprise 3 percent of the Australian population, 29 percent of the prison population. This aligns with the Commission’s findings that the absolute level and growth of imprisonment so far this century has been highest in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

The authors take an economic perspective, pointing out, for example, that it costs $120 000 on average to keep someone in prison for a year: there must be some less costly way of keeping the community safe while meeting other objectives of law-enforcement.  It summarises several initiatives in Australia and in other countries of more cost-effective alternatives to imprisonment.

For those who would like a quick overview the Commission has produced a one-minute video summary (note the twist in the title). There will also be an online event next Friday 12 November with Stephen King, Helen Coventry, Don Weatherburn and Nicholas Cowdery.

Stop complaining about right-wing populists: stand up for democracy

For the last five years, since the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, there has been a raft of books about the threat to democracy from right-wing populists.

In a review in Inside Story, provocatively titled Democracy is for Losers, historian Ryan Cropp reviews Jan-Werner Müller’s book Democracy rules. Cropp writes that “rather than opine further about the shape of populist threat, as most of the doom prophets have done in recent years, [Müller] attempts to shift the focus back onto democracy’s own first principles”.  Müller considers political parties and the media to comprise the “critical infrastructure” of democracy. He acknowledges that both have been suffering a crisis of legitimacy, but he proposes practical fixes for their shortcomings. Cropp explains his title “democracy is for losers”: it’s about accepting the will of an empowered people, in a way that the loser, Donald Trump, hasn’t.

Barbados shows up Australia

While Australian prime ministers Howard, Abbott and Morrison have grovelled to a foreign monarch, Barbados has amicably replaced the Queen of England with its own president, Sandra Mason, who up to now has been the country’s governor-general. Tom Philips, writing in The Guardian, describes how Mason was elected almost unanimously by the country’s parliament: Barbados elects first president as it prepares to drop Queen as head of state. The change is largely about leaving the country’s colonial past behind.

Those arguing against our having our own head of state often argue that we are de-facto an independent republic: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But important decisions by the Morrison Government, most notably AUKUS, and the rush to conclude a trade agreement with the UK ahead of an agreement with the EU, suggest that British interests can still guide government to subordinate our interests to those of the UK. And we have the extraordinary situation of a former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, serving unashamedly as an adviser to the British Board of Trade, while our officials try to negotiate a trade agreement with that same foreign country.