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Turnbull’s ‘progressive’ legacy

In August 2011 the Australian American Leadership Dialogue talkfest convened in Perth and one of its sessions was a panel discussion on China’s regional ambitions. Malcolm Turnbull, then the Opposition’s communications spokesman, gave a presentation in which he argued that because the Chinese regime hadn’t contested its borders with Russia, fears were misplaced.

A distinguished Australian journalist afterwards said to anyone listening ‘there you have why that man should never be placed in charge of anything to do with national security’.


Commentary on Turnbull (including by himself) routinely notes his support for ‘progressive’ pieties on a republic, climate change and gay marriage. There’s less awareness of his soft leftism on national security issues.

These instincts have been obvious in his staff appointments. In opposition one of his senior advisors ridiculed security agency concerns that Chinese intelligence had infiltrated Parliament House computers. And as prime minister he chose as his international advisor Frances Adamson, who had been chief of staff to Stephen Smith, foreign minister under Kevin Rudd and defence minister under Julia Gillard.

Turnbull’s decision to appoint Adamson said much about his lack of loyalty to the Liberal party. The international adviser role for a Liberal prime minister should involve ensuring a distinctively Coalition foreign policy. That involves keeping DFAT’s leftish bureaucrats and the foreign minister on the straight and narrow. Proposed appointments, including of ambassadors, need to be carefully vetted and the prime minister would normally look to the international adviser to provide party-political as well as policy advice. The advisor would also usually assist the Liberal party federal secretariat, especially in elections.

The idea that a former senior Labor staffer could be entrusted with these tasks is laughable – just as it’s unimaginable that a Labor prime minister would ever invite a former chief of staff to a Liberal minister into the inner sanctum of their office. 

Turnbull then reappointed as defence minister the low profile and reluctant public performer Marise Payne, who had no significant previous experience of defence issues. Public perceptions of the government’s defence policy are now dominated by diversity awareness drives, pink fingernails and bullying personnel to adopt gender-neutral (ironically so-called ‘anti-bullying’) language.

As prime minister, Tony Abbott resisted DFAT pressure to waste taxpayers’ money on a campaign for a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council, whose members include Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China. After Abbott lost the leadership, to signal the Turnbull government’s new ‘progressive’ foreign policy, DFAT quickly got the green light to launch the campaign. Two US administrations have refused to participate in this part of the UN, because human rights abusers continue to be elected to it and because of its chronic  bias against Israel. Yet the Turnbull government made joining it a central priority, which predictably chewed up much time and resources.

Strikingly, whereas once the vigilance of a Liberal Prime Minister’s Office provided the most important brake against DFAT’s rogue tendencies, Senate Estimates recently has taken on that role. Senator Abetz gave officials a roasting in February over the A$44 million of taxpayers’ money given last financial year to projects in the Palestinian territories – while the Palestinian Authority found A$472 million for payments to give to convicted terrorists and their families under its ‘martyr payments policy’. It was almost certainly pressure from Abetz, along with that of Senators Fraser Anning and Pauline Hanson, (not to mention the highlighting of the issue by this magazine) that resulted in the government diverting some $10 million of aid away from the Palestinian Authority.

It’s telling that some of the warmest tributes to outgoing foreign minister Julie Bishop came from Labor’s Penny Wong, Kevin Rudd and the left-leaning Lowy Institute – whose East Asia programme director recently said that Australia ‘needs to forget’ about our US alliance. Former Australian Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja, Julie Bishop’s choice as Ambassador for Women and Girls (despite deep misgivings in prime minister Abbott’s office) tweeted ‘thank you for… ensuring gender equality is the central focus of foreign policy & international development’ (sic). It’s interesting that ex-ambassador Stott Despoja was left with the impression that our $5 billion foreign affairs effort is a global extension of the government’s Office for Women.

Will things change under Scott Morrison? As the minister who stopped the boats, Morrison can be expected to highlight the Coalition’s trustworthiness on border protection as opposed to Labor, with its large constituency forever pressing to water down the tough policies necessary to deter the people smugglers.

Removing Marise Payne as defence minister was a positive but why she would be rewarded with foreign affairs is a mystery. And now defence has Christopher Pyne, unlike Payne an efficient decision-maker but who is deeply distrusted by Coalition conservatives, most recently for acknowledging his recruiment of ‘Get Up’ leftists to try and stop Turnbull being replaced by Tony Abbott in 2009. We can expect more of our armed forces being distracted from their real task of protecting our country by endless politically correct nonsense. At least there’ll probably be continued progress on one thing noticed by our US ally – Tony Abbott’s commitment to restoring defence spending to at least 2 per cent of GDP.

But Morrison’s really big mistake is leaving Tony Abbott out of the cabinet. He could have been a ferociously effective part of his team to prevent a Shorten government.

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