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Australia’s reputation in the Indo-Pacific warrants consistency across leaders

Image credit: DFAT (Creative Commons: Wikimedia Commons)

The recent Australian leadership spill reveals internal tensions within national politics. Meanwhile, another foreign policy shift has the potential to unsettle hard-earned relations with regional players. The new Prime Minister and cabinet will need to re-double efforts to position Australia in the Indo-Pacific, and indeed the world. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne have completed their first overseas trips in the freshly-minted Coalition government. It will be important to sustain these with genuine and constructive engagements across the region.

Morrison’s first speech as Prime Minister did not mention foreign policy in any concrete way. Nonetheless, he made the swift and appropriate decision to ‘shore up’ the Indonesian relationship, embarking to Jakarta. The visit was originally scheduled for former Prime Minister Turnbull to announce a long-awaited trade deal, the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), and commit to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

Since Prime Minister Paul Keating declared that the Indonesia relationship is Australia’s most important, Jakarta has been high on the list for subsequent debut Prime Minister visits. Few, however, complete this so soon after a leadership change (with the exception of Prime Minister Rudd’s meeting with SBY under similar circumstances in June 2013).

Morrison’s meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo has been lauded as a strong leadership decision in disturbed political circumstances and was important for foreign policy continuity. Indeed, the Joint Declaration is an important statement of mutual ties between Indonesia and Australia and signals a shared willingness for bilateral cooperation.

Nonetheless, completing a pre-scheduled and brief diplomatic visit on the back of lengthy negotiations seems like a minimum requirement for an incoming leader, and should not be overstated. Further, the remainder of the trip was cancelled. This included visits to Cambodia, Malaysia and the Pacific Islands. In the wake of Julie Bishop’s tenure as Foreign Minister and the absence of Morrison, the Pacific Islands Forum date was shouldered by new Foreign Minister Payne. Leadership meetings with Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Cambodia’s Hun Sen remain outstanding for the Morrison government.

The Pacific Islands Forum always promised to be controversial but limited Australian representation would have cast a particularly grim shadow on Australia’s real commitment to the region. Nonetheless, although prime ministers typically attend the forum, it is not clear that the presence of Morrison, responsible for Operation Sovereign Borders and marked record of support for fossil fuels, would have eased regional anxieties over refugee issues and climate change. This is even starker given Morrison’s leadership was triggered by the government’s backflip on national energy policy.

All this might help to explain Payne’s silent posture following the forum, simply referencing the ‘robust’ debate. The Coalition’s inability to act on Paris Climate Agreement will certainly remain a point of contention in relations with Pacific nations, where rising sea levels and weather events are pressing issues. This could affect Australia’s broader status in the region, including its potential to manage meaningful relationships and initiate real influence.

In this way, Scott Morison may have stemmed any potential fissures in the Indonesia-Australia relationship but seems to have overlooked other relationships. This leaves Bishop’s regional legacy vulnerable. In contrast to the former Foreign Minister, Morrison’s oversight of boat turnbacks and avid defence of detention centres in Manus Island and Nauru has made him unpopular in many parts of the Indo-Pacific. A lack of engagement here will only stoke his reputation for Australian unilateralism and rigid self-interest.

Although many foreign policy positions will remain unchanged post-Turnbull-Bishop, blemished reputations will not bode well when personal relationships are so crucial to ensuring amiable and productive working relationships with regional powers. As noted by Susan Harris Rimmer, ‘the change was rather more personality-driven, a question of style. But style – and leaders – matter in diplomacy’.

Australia clearly recognises the value of the IA-CEPA and its announcement was a convenient and early win for the Morrison government. It builds on numerous points of bilateral engagement across diplomatic, security and economic issues, and will work towards diluting Indonesian protectionism and formalising senior representation at annual meetings.

But for a new government still reeling from the void left by Turnbull-Bishop foreign policy leadership, further work remains. The inconsistency of Australian domestic politics hurts leader-to-leader relationships and undermines a regional perception of Australia as a bulwark of good governance and democratic stability. Many see party room-based leadership assassinations as the antithesis of effective representative democracy.

Morrison and his team will have to push hard to overcome reputational issues at the international level. Despite a strong start, they will need to place an ever-greater emphasis on regional foreign policy issues.

At a minimum, Morrison-Payne leadership will stabilise the approach - widely credited to Julie Bishop - of Australia acting in consistent and nuanced terms with foreign powers. However, with some commitment, they can drive Australia’s credentials as a strong, invested and genuine partner in its evolving region.

Mason Littlejohn is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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