Scott Morrison, who was embraced as a bro’ by Donald Trump, now seeks to become one of Joe Biden’s besties.
Making this transition neatly is probably the most important aspect of Morrison’s trip to the G7 summit, at which Australia is one of several guest countries.
A feature of the weekend in Cornwall will be the prime minister’s bilateral with the president, with a show of bonhomie for the cameras and some shrewd mutual assessment in private.
The Australia-US relationship is driven by deep common interests rather than the extent of rapport (or lack of it) between leaders in office at any particular time. But establishing strong personal bonds can help grease the wheels.
Morrison’s pragmatism and his chameleon quality will help in developing intimacy. At and around the G7 he will play up the obvious points of commonality, with Biden and the other leaders. But he still carries some policy baggage, notably on the climate issue, and it’s unclear whether that will cause him trouble.
Morrison laid the groundwork for his trip in his Wednesday speech in Perth, which was titled “A world order that favours freedom”, and cast as a rallying call to allies. This neatly aligned with Biden’s recent Washington Post article, under the heading “My trip to Europe is about America rallying the world’s democracies”.
James Curran, professor of modern history at Sydney University, saw “more than a touch of hubris” in the Morrison speech.
“He appears to be claiming that Australia, by virtue of being at the frontline of the supposed ‘new Cold War’ against China, is a standard bearer for ‘a world order that favours freedom’.
"But I think it is a case more of the PM’s cleverly tapping into President Biden’s longstanding ‘alliance of democracies’ rhetoric. Far from being out front, Mr Morrison is playing the role of presidential mimic,” Curran says.
One way or another, Morrison is firmly on the same page as the new president.
It’s a easier page to be on than Trump’s. In the Trump era, closeness might be deemed necessary for Australia’s interests but was decidedly awkward. For instance, when asked on radio before his September 2019 US visit (with its state dinner) whether Trump was a good president, one could almost hear Morrison sliding across the room. “Yeah I, look we’ve got a straight up relationship and he respects Australia.”
In Wednesday’s speech Morrison talked up Australia’s book, declaring in the written version: “Australia is more connected and more respected today than arguably at any time in our history”. He added: “We have worked hard to ensure we are not a nation that can be easily marginalised and driven to unacceptable compromises”.
In broad strategic and economic terms, Morrison goes to the G7 focused on and preoccupied with the threat of an ever-more assertive China. Australia has increasingly felt the harsh edge of China’s diplomatic tongue, and some Australian exports suffer as China weaponises trade to express its displeasure over various issues.
Morrison is looking for maximum attention on the China challenge from allies and friends, especially the US, at the G7 and on every other possible occasion.
Given how deleterious for Australia China’s behaviour now is, the government’s reaction is not surprising. But there is also the risk of it becoming seriously counterproductive.
In Western Australia, there’s concern China could threaten that state’s iron ore exports. Critics don’t buy the federal government’s argument this would be against China’s own interests and so is unlikely.
WA premier Mark McGowan was decidedly unimpressed with the tone of Morrison’s speech. McGowan warned that “we need to be very careful in relation to our language and the way we approach these things because we could be the big losers out of it”.
One specific issue Morrison hopes the G7 will push is reform of the World Trade Organisation’s disputes settlement system, which has broken down in the wake of Trump vetoing the appointment of new judges. A well-functioning process is vital, especially for a country like Australia, to enforce trade rules and deal with grievances.
The Australian National University’s Shiro Armstrong, an expert on the WTO, says Morrison’s urging lends weight to a wider international recognition that global trade rules are outdated and the current system is under threat.
While the G7 is expected to call for action, Armstrong says change will require broader support. He points to the G20 (of which Australia is a member) being the body able to “set the strategic direction for reform of the WTO given its membership of the large emerging economies and established powers”.
Among the central issues on the G7 agenda will be climate change and the pandemic.
Morrison has made it clear he is not ready yet to embrace a firm 2050 target for net zero emissions – though he wants to before the Glasgow climate conference in November – let alone lift Australia’s ambition in the near term.
For all his talk of technology, and his defensive stand on Australia’s record, he won’t be in tune with the G7 leaders. It will be embarrassing. The question is, how embarrassing?
Will he be put on the spot in plain sight, or will Australia’s laggard position be politely ignored in public? And behind closed doors, will Biden twist his arm to move faster, or will the president leave that until later, or to his climate envoy John Kerry? Britain’s Boris Johnson has already been firm with him.
On the pandemic, Morrison will be able to boast about Australia’s health and economic performance. Perhaps he won’t dwell on the slowness and problems of the rollout.
But the G7 leaders will be focused on the need to get more vaccines to developing countries. Biden is proposing a big US initiative. Morrison will point to the vaccine aid Australia is funding for the region. We could always do more however – the government has on order and will receive more doses than necessary to fully cover all eligible Australians.
In his speech, Morrison made a point of welcoming Biden’s probe into the origins of coronavirus – whether it came from an animal, as initially was the accepted explanation, or the possibility it accidentally escaped from a Wuhan laboratory.
Australia’s early call for an inquiry marked a moment of further deterioration in the relationship with China. The investigation that eventually resulted was inconclusive.
According to a leaked version of the G7 draft communique, seen by Bloomberg News, the leaders are set to call for the World Health Organisation to set up a new inquiry into COVID-19’s origins.
For Morrison the search for the pandemic’s start is unfinished business, a point of strong accord with the president.