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Scott goes to Washington

Sep 20, 2019 • 16m44s

Tomorrow, Scott Morrison will be received in Washington on a state visit. It highlights his special relationship with Donald Trump and his difficulty with Beijing.

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Scott goes to Washington

84 • Sep 20, 2019

Scott goes to Washington

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, This is 7am.Tomorrow, Scott Morrison will be received in Washington on a state visit. The trip highlights the special relationship he has with Donald Trump. At the same time, it underscores the difficulty he has with Beijing. Paul Bongiorno on the Prime Minister’s diplomatic wedge.

PAUL:

All right Elizabeth let's get it done.

ELIZABETH:

OK Paul, How are you pulling up alright from last night. You were at the Midwinter Ball.

PAUL:

Oh yes. I left the ball early just before midnight because I didn't want to turn into a...

ELIZABETH:

A pumpkin!

PAUL:

I didn’t want to turn into a pumpkin or anything like that.

ELIZABETH:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30 year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

PAUL:

Yeah it was an interesting ball. I think it's at the end of a pretty bruising year. Um… Scott Morrison gave a much funnier and better speech this year although it was a tad long. In fact I think he actually was funnier and a bit more self-deprecating than Anthony Albanese. So from that point of view you have to market as yet another miracle win.

ELIZABETH:

Scott Morrison is this week en route to Washington. What is it that he can expect when he gets there?

PAUL:

Donald Trump will be Dutchessing the prime minister in earnest. In fact, he'll be putting on one of the most colorful ceremonies a U.S. President can muster. I've witnessed this twice actually. Once with Hawke and once with John Howard. There is this amazing United States old guard drum and fife corps. They'll perform on the South Lawn of the White House in the Prime Minister's honour. They have these 18th century uniforms with red jackets and they play antique instruments - and that they'll be followed later that night with the privilege of a white tie official state dinner.

ELIZABETH:

And that's more fanfare than Trump has put on for other world leaders that have visited, is Morrison a favorite of his do you think and are there echoes of kind of a Bush-Howard relationship or the revival of that kind of friendship?

PAUL:

There is no doubt that Trump has warmed to Morrison. He likes conservatives. Morrison has a reputation of being conservative. Trump of course, who likes to be the person who knows everything and is the smartest person on the planet, says he always knew that Morrison would win the election. He said it was no surprise to him.

Archival tape -- Donald Trump:

“They called it an upset, but I don’t call it an upset, you probably did, your wife didn’t call it an upset. [Laughter] But I want to congratulate you very much. It’s a fantastic thing you did…”

PAUL:

And he even said that he told Morrison that he would win the election before he actually did.

ELIZABETH:

Hmm.. Did the invitation from President Trump, which came so soon after the election, was that a surprise?

PAUL:

Well yes it's quite unusual that it came out of the blue and of course if a United States President says come to Washington and I'll give you the full treatment, well any Australian Prime Minister is going to say thank you.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“We can never take our relationship with the United States for granted. It is a foundational part of our foreign policy and our economy. I take it seriously. It’s bigger than Prime Ministers and Presidents. It’s about our people, it’s about our shared values…”

PAUL:

Morrison has noted the fast that the relationship is bigger than personalities. In a formal statement about the trip, he said that we have stood side by side with the United States in every major conflict since the First World War. In the defense of freedom, liberty and democracy, the sort of phraseology often used by American Presidents, he says this is evidence of the strength of the relationship. Australia's ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey, he's over the moon about it.

Archival tape -- Joe Hockey:

“It’s a huge event, it is the greatest compliment the United States can pay to another country, to put on a full state reception.”

ELIZABETH:

So Paul, in terms of how Morrison is positioning the visit though, in the past a Prime Minister, an Australian Prime Minister, you'd think would just be thrilled to be spruiking a visit like this. But Morrison has been downplaying it a little.

PAUL:

Well yeah he's been stressing that what's important isn't the personalities and how they get on. But the enduring relationship. He said that this transcends any issues about who's in the White House or who's in the lodge. And he insisted in a number of interviews that he would be pursuing Australia's interests.

ELIZABETH:

And who is that last point aimed at do you think, specifically?

PAUL:

Well honestly, China. The whole trip is a balancing act for the Prime Minister between our biggest trading partner and our biggest and closest military ally. And we know China doesn't like this. Last week the American ambassador to Canberra, Arthur Culverhouse, urged Australia to have more confidence and courage to combat China with the United States. This gives you a sense of where we're at.

Australia has spent the past decade or more not choosing, if you like, between the United States and China, when it comes to engagement, and basically the US is saying now the American ambassador, who by the way is personally appointed by Trump, is saying, you’ve got to choose, and by that they mean pick us. And China of course is saying pretty much the same thing. But it's clear that America's strategy of trying to contain China is not in our interests and Morrison knows it.

On Wednesday the state owned Chinese newspaper, The Global Times, published a trenchant opinion piece written by Professor Chen Hong. He's the director of the Australian Studies Centre at a University in Shanghai. This guy has an intimate knowledge of Australia China relations and our politics. Well Professor Chen Hong noted the Culver House quote and described the advice as condescending and self-interested.

In the piece he said that Morrison would be better off if he kept Australia's national interests in mind while savouring -- and this is a quote -- while savouring the foie gras at the White House. He correctly pointed out that China is the biggest importer of Australia's high quality market priced products and services. He says this means senseless attempts to decouple the two economies will only be detrimental to the interests and well-being of Australia and Australians.

[MUSIC STARTS]

So the Chinese see Trump as the puppet master pulling Morrison's strings and in fact cartoons in state media certainly portray it that way. The illustration in the Global Times opinion piece was just that - it was Trump as the puppet master and and our Prime Minister as the marionette.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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[MUSIC ENDS]

ELIZABETH:

Paul as we speak, Scott Morrison is about to land in Washington for his state visit. When was the last time an Australian prime minister made an official visit to China?

PAUL:

Well the last time we were invited was back in September 2016 and that was an official visit made by Malcolm Turnbull. But since then we've been put in the deep freeze, basically. Foreign Affairs sources say the cold shoulder is even manifested in petty ways. Our diplomats are shunned at Beijing receptions and arranging high level meetings is almost an impossible task… the key word here is high level meetings. You know you can have a meeting with the deputy deputy secretary but you can't have a meeting with the deputy secretary or the secretary him or herself. That's the point.

ELIZABETH:

So we can’t make high level meetings and our diplomats are being ignored at functions?

PAUL:

Yeah. Well that's what I'm told. In fact, I spoke to one in Canberra yesterday who said he's been told by our diplomats that they're just persona non grata in the sense that people realise that if they seem to be too friendly at receptions or whatever that it would be frowned upon by government sources and officials.

ELIZABETH:

There's something else I want to ask you about Paul and I'm interested in how, over the last two sitting weeks Morrison has fiercely defended Gladys Liu over her links to the Chinese political lobby and I'm wondering if that's aimed at helping or if it has had the effect of helping the relationship with China.

PAUL:

Well yeah if we take the Global Times piece as any guide, Chen Hong the professor described Morrison's defence as a decent gesture. He said that the Prime Minister condemned what Chen Hong calls the’ defamation of loose political allegiance’ as casting a smear on Chinese Australians.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“The member for Isaacs should take a good hard look at himself. And he should have a good hard look 1.2 m Australians who will see exactly what he is doing to Australians of Chinese descent. Just because someone was born in China, doesn't make them disloyal. What the member for Isaacs is doing is casting a smear on Chinese Australians Mr Speaker.”

PAUL:

He said Morrison's remarks are significant. Morrison is showing clear reason and judgment. So if that is the view of someone quite close to the Chinese government, I'm sure Morrison would only hope that maybe Beijing will begin to rethink its attitudes towards the Prime Minister.

ELIZABETH:

But then there's the domestic side of it for the Prime Minister too.

PAUL:

Well yeah it's very messy. Cutting across Morrison's efforts at detente are the China hawks in his own parliamentary Liberal Party. They're not happy with Ms Liu or with his handling of her obfuscation. The West Australian newspaper reported last week that a handful of Liberal MP’s had told the newspaper they wanted a full probe into their colleague to ensure her loyalties were not divided between China and Australia. The paper says according to one MP, there is a sense that there should have been concerns when Liu was being chosen to stand as a candidate and the MP said he believed those concerns were ignored. One of the MP’s, the paper quote says, “sooner or later we have to take off the rose colored glasses about what is happening” Of course, in the view of this MP what is happening is Australian politicians are being used almost as fifth columnists.

ELIZABETH:

And that's coming from within the Liberal Party.

PAUL:

Indeed.

ELIZABETH:

So who's prosecuting this case for the Labor side?

PAUL:

Ah well in the House of Representatives both the opposition leader and the Shadow Attorney-General Dreyfuss. But in the Senate, it's Labor's Senate leader Penny Wong. She's taking the lead and that probably helps neutralize potential charges of racism.

Archival tape -- Penny Wong:

“And yet again we see the arrogance of this government refusing to be accountable to this parliament, refusing to respond to public allegations, refusing to put the national interest first and as they leave the chamber, ladies and gentlemen, this shows what this government thinks of the national interest… walk out. Because you don't actually want to defend Australia’s national interest. What a shameful group of cowards they are.”

PAUL:

Wong was successful in getting the numbers in the Senate to demand that the Government's Senate leader Mathias Cormann give a formal explanation to give assurances to the Senate that Liu is a fit and proper person to remain a member of the Australian Parliament.

Corman was given 12 hours to come up with the statement on Wednesday morning. He came into the Senate and he gave 100 per cent support to Liu and hit out at the criticism of her. But he gave none of the explanation that Wong and the rest of the Senate were demanding. An angry Wong in fact quoted the West Australians report and noted it was Andrew Hastie's hometown of Perth.

ELIZABETH:

And what’s the significance of bringing Hastie into this?

PAUL:

Well he's the chair of the influential Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. So he's been briefed by Australia's spy agencies on evidence of Chinese interference. You might remember him warning that we risk making the same mistakes France did with Nazi Germany if we appease the Chinese government.

ELIZABETH:

And you think that Wong in bringing them up in the Senate is pointing out her belief that he is the source of this West Australian article?

PAUL:

That's exactly the point. And in fact in a couple of the quotes in the West Australian newspaper sounds very much like what Hastie himself has already put on the record.

ELIZABETH:

Mm. And do we know what Morrison's thinking is on all of this?

PAUL:

Well look even as the Chinese state newspaper noted, there is a domestic political concern that Scott Morrison has and that is that he only has a majority of one. And while he could kick Liu out of the Liberal Party, that wouldn't mean that she automatically would leave the Parliament. But if she quit the Parliament, it would cause a byelection in Chisholm and the Liberals won Chisholm against the odds I think just on a thousand votes. So that's an added reason for Morrison to stick by Liu, which of course probably has the Americans looking on his stand here and his defence of Liu's Chinese ties, with a little bit of disapproval. So from that point of view, Morrison's wedged between Washington and Beijing.

ELIZABETH:

And did he mention any of this at all in his Midwinter Ball speech?

PAUL:

No he didn't. Anthony Albanese had a bit of a crack, as you would expect.

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:

“I’ll leave with you what should be the spirit of the midwinter ball. Dance like nobody's watching, talk like the security agencies aren’t listening, and donate like Gladys Liu is organising.”

[Music Plays]

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[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

A federal court ruling has found that the Tamil family from Biloela will remain in the country while their case is given a full hearing, which could take months. The case centres on the family's youngest daughter, two year old Tharunicaa, who's claim for protection has not been completely explored. Authorities have said that they will not separate the family and they will not be able to deport them for the duration of the case. The date of a final hearing has not been set.

And the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has announced that the 2018-19 budget is the healthiest of the last decade with a deficit of $690 million. He pointed to iron ore exports and related company tax payments for the increases in government revenue. Spending on the NDIS and certain family tax benefits over the same period were $6.4 billion below what was budgeted.

7am is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow with Michelle Macklem.

Erik Jensen is our editor.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

Please consider subscribing to the show through your favourite podcast app or you leave us a review if you listen on iTunes or Stitcher. It’s a great help.

This is 7am. I'm Elizabeth Kulas. See you next week.

Tomorrow, Scott Morrison will be received in Washington on a state visit. The trip highlights the special relationship he has with Donald Trump. At the same time, it underscores the difficulty he has with Beijing. Paul Bongiorno on the prime minister’s diplomatic wedge.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

Entering Trump’s dinner circle in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of envelopeaudio.com.au text: Envelope Audio).

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84: Scott goes to Washington