Transcript: The End of Orthodoxy: Australia in a post-pandemic world

A full transcript of the event The End of Orthodoxy: Australia in a post-pandemic world, held on 9 September 2020 and available as a video.   

Michael Wesley: 

Hello and welcome to this special event hosted by the University of Melbourne, the Wheeler Centre and Australian Foreign Affairs. I'm Michael Wesley, the Deputy Vice Chancellor International at the University of Melbourne. Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands we inhabit. Currently on Ngunnawal land and I pay my respects to Ngunnawal Elders past, present and emerging.

Tonight, we're here to discuss a new essay on Australian foreign affairs  'The End of Orthodoxy' by Australia's shadow foreign minister, the Honorable Senator Penny Wong. Australian Foreign Affairs is in my view, one of the most exciting developments on the Australian publishing scene for very many years. It's provided us with a platform to debate and discuss some of the most pressing issues facing this country and its international future. Superbly edited by Jonathan Perlman, it has allowed us in recent years to discuss Australia's relationship with China; our policies in South Pacific; and this most recent issue, which talks about the challenges facing Australia in the field of intelligence. ‘The End of Orthodoxy’, which appears in this latest issue is a great example of a leading foreign policy thinker, really grappling with some of the key issues in Australia's international environment. Senator Wong pulls no punches, listing US/China tensions, the decay of multilateral organisations, and of course, the COVID crisis as a trio of challenges facing this country and its international future. Reflecting on the essay made me think that these are not temporary hiccups that we face. In fact, I think we will look back on these as true inflection points separating a world that Australia was comfortable in and had worked hard to create from a new and uncertain future.

But Senator Wong doesn't simply describe a problem. She's someone who looks for and proposes concrete solutions. These solutions that she proposes centre on activism and imagination. They require deep engagement with our neighbours. They require a focus on rebuilding commitments to and the effectiveness of institutions. I strongly commend ‘The End of Orthodoxy’ to anyone who's interested in this country's international future, just as I commend Australian Foreign Affairs. To hear more about the essay, Senator Wong will now be, will now be interviewed by one of our leading political journalists  Laura Tingle of ABC’s 7.30 Report.

But first, a quick introduction on our two protagonists. Penny Wong was born in Malaysia. She migrated to Australia when she was eight and she and her family settled in Adelaide. Penny graduated in law and arts from the University of Adelaide and went on to practice labour law advocating for the rights of workers. She also secured better pay and conditions for workers as a union representative and served as a policy advisor in the New South Wales Government. Penny was elected to the Australian Senate in 2001, with her first term commencing in 2002. She was re-elected in 2007, 2013, and in the double dissolution election of 2016. After just two years in the Senate, Penny was promoted to the shadow ministry. Upon the election of the Labour government in 2007, Penny was appointed Minister for Climate Change and Water. In Labour's second term, she served as Minister for Finance and deregulation. In 2013, Penny was appointed leader of the government in the Senate, the first woman to hold this role. After a change of government she became Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Since 2016, Penny has served as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. She lives in Adelaide with her partner and their two daughters. 

Laura Tingle is chief political correspondent for ABC TV's 7.30. She won the Paul Leinen Award for Excellence in Press Gallery Journalism in 2004, and Walkley awards in 2005, and 2011 She is author of Chasing the Future: Recession Recovery and the New Politics in Australia, and In Search of Good Government, and three acclaimed Quarterly Essay’s  ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Political Amnesia’, and ‘Follow the Leader’. Her new Quarterly Essay on Australia and New Zealand is due out in late 2020. Now, over to you, Laura, and Penny.

Laura Tingle:

Thanks so much for that introduction, Michael. And thanks for joining us tonight. So Penny Wong, your essay concerns the post-COVID world and foreign policy. Before we talk about the specifics of individual countries in Australia, I was wondering whether you had been able to reflect on how such an extraordinary uncertainty as the pandemic affects the mindset of people making foreign policy around the world?

Penny Wong:

That's a good question. I mean, I think human beings have a, you know, series of responses to uncertainty, don't we? And some of them involve denial or minimisation. I hope where we can get to, is a place where people understand the extent of change, the extent of disruption, but rather than retreating into ourselves, try to look for new opportunities and different approaches, because the sort of stability and security Australia and the world wants, I don't think is to be found by relying on the old assumptions.

LT:

Because it does actually offer the opportunity to make new and better policy in a way doesn't it? I mean, you can't take anything for granted. You can think outside the box. And at times of crisis in the past, you had actually seen policymakers do that, obviously after the Second World War …

PW:

World War Two and, and the turn to America, you know, undertaken by the Labour Prime Minister, absolutely. I talked about this in the essay and part of what we have to do I think is apply the same sort of urgency to foreign policy, as we have been applying to, or bringing to our domestic response, economic response and public health response and recognise this is a very different world. And if we want to secure our interests, we're going to have to be much more ambitious and much more self-reliant. And as you say, and that does, there is the capacity, there is the opportunity to do things better. We certainly are gonna have to work harder.

'The sort of stability and security Australia and the world wants is not to be found by relying on the old assumptions'

LT:

It also changes the logistics of foreign policy, though, doesn't it? I mean, we went from, you know, back in the old days, people, a Prime Minister might do one trip to Washington or to Tokyo or Beijing during his term in office. Now, it moved to a situation where there was this sort of summit season where people were having regular bilateral meetings in all those annual summits at the end of each year. And now it's moved on to Zoom meetings and much less formality I suspect in meetings between leaders. How do you think that changes the dynamics of foreign policy, apart from anything else it presumably makes it more iterative?

PW:

Yes, it will change how we do business, or it is changing that, isn't it? I mean that the sort of engaging with people personally going to different countries, you know, those, that architecture of foreign policy has fundamentally changed. And I don't think we'll come back for some time, if at all. Maybe I hope it creates different opportunities because it's a lot easier logistically to organise a Zoom meeting or an online meeting than it is to organise a foreign ministerial trip to somewhere. So, I hope what it will mean and I think you use the term iterative, is that you can have more engagement more often online. And there's a different kind of depth to that engagement, so you don't get the perk you know, face to face, human contact, which is always good for relationships, but you do get a more opportunity to have an ongoing conversation and touch base. more often. So, I hope that that is what can happen.

LT:

And that also means, sort of less symbolism. For example, there was expectations of a G7 meeting in Washington, which is now not going to go ahead. And the meetings themselves become an issue about the symbols of going to meetings, not going to meetings, who you spoke to, who you didn't speak to. So, a lot of those signals that were sort of sent by the sort of formal diplomacy channels for leaders is also going to change and as you say, become less formal.

PW:

And I hope not just less formal, but hopefully less formulaic. Because we what we need is probably fewer photo opportunities, and more plans. And we're at a pretty challenging time globally, both in the multilateral system in our region, and I know you’ll come to some of these discussions. And I think, substantive opportunities for engagement for articulation, for cooperation. We need more substance than form.

LT:

Which brings us to the nub of the essay, which particularly focuses on the regional implications of the Coronavirus. First of all, what's your reading of how the region is actually coping with this pandemic?

PW:

Look, I think there's a confluence of a number of dynamics, which are pretty challenging for the region. So, one of the dynamics, which I talk about in the essay is obviously escalating competition between the US and China, in which our region is a focal point. Then on top of that, you have the very severe economic consequences of the various public health and border restrictions, which we have had to be imposed globally. And for many nations in the region, particularly developing countries, they don't have the economic and fiscal capacity to respond in the way that Australia has. So, I think there are a lot of challenges in the region, one of the things we, I believe we need to do is to work as closely as we are able with the region to ensure there is a path to economic recovery. And whilst Australia can't, you know, engineer that alone, we can galvanise better regional and multilateral responses, in the way that Kevin Rudd did during the GFC. Or eventually in the way in which the Asian financial crisis was responded to. And we really need that kind of cooperation.

LT:

Are we aware enough about what's going on in the region? I mean, the Prime Minister talks a lot about the Pacific and it's good to say there's this real consciousness there, but we don't really see much about what's happening in Indonesia in the media or Southeast Asia or India, just on the ground.

PW:

No, I don't think we are aware or not aware enough. And our focus on India and Indonesia, particularly in the essay as to critical nations for Australia. And our stability and security is integrally tied to the stability and security of the region and full chromatic to that, or central to that is Indonesia. And I think we have a lot of public debate about our relationship with China, we have a lot of public discussion, as you know, is logical about, about American politics. But we should be understanding very deeply what's occurring in Indonesia. And it should be a much greater focus of our external policy, whether that's, you know, strategic, diplomatic or economic.

LT:

How do you think the pandemic has affected the China/US relationship, not just rhetorically but in terms of, whether it's put one or other on the back foot? You mentioned that one of the trends occurring prior to the pandemic was obviously China's grrrings of belligerence, or assertiveness. How's that been affected by the pandemic?

PW:

So, but, but pre … before the pandemic we already saw, as is historically to be anticipated, you know, the great power competition. I think the pandemic has catalysed it. I think it hardened it, and there are a series of consequences to that. One, the domestic narrative in both countries particularly fuelled, I think, by a nationalist rhetoric, whether it's in President Xi's China and President Trump's United States is, has increased. That has manifested in a series of rhetorical and policy propositions, and a series of actions. So, I think you've seen hardening of that escalation across a range of those domains, which is obviously challenging for countries like Australia. But I would, would make this point about it. We, we, there is a lot of focus on a great power competition. And that's understandable. But the answers to the challenges Australia faces do not lie in that great power competition. As I say in the essay, you know, we've already chosen we're a US ally. But that isn't the end of the matter. And the answers to some of the challenges we face about how we secure our interests in this world, how we contribute more to stability, lie much more in the ally, the aligned nations in the region and globally, then focusing entirely on that, also, so completely on that competition.

LT:

So that means escalating or accelerating our strategic relationships with countries …

PW:

Economic relationships. And working together on issues where we share an interest. And that the point I'd make is we're not the only country in the world who is working through how you manage escalating great power competition. And this is a pretty common experience for the rest of the world. And we're not the only country in our region who are working through that. So, you know, there is a lot, we're not on our own. And there are a lot of nations who face those similar challenges. Working with allied and allied nations around securing our interests around securing what sort of region we want. That has to be, I think, a central focus of Australian foreign policy.

LT:

So, that means to escalating our conversations with countries like Japan, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, South Korea, it means escalating them, does it actually mean sort of revisiting or reworking our formal relationships with them and alliances or, and or try to sort of get more of a mean, we've obviously got regional agreements like ASEAN and regional organisations, but does it actually mean if we try to maintain or prop up multilateralism that we actually start rebuilding that in the region?

PW:

I think there's a couple of questions. The first is an architecture question. And I think, certainly we would want those informal groupings or more formal groupings such as the quad to not simply focus on military engagement, but to focus on economic and diplomatic engagement. I think we need to work out where it is we can work more closely with nations. Does that mean an architectural change? Maybe it does in some circumstances, but I think it is having the creativity and capacity in the region to work out with different nations and different entities, how it is we can cooperate around aligned interests. So, for example, on ASEAN, in ASEAN, we know that the Law of the Sea, given the disputes around the South China Sea, but that's a present issue for the region. How is it we work best together with the ASEAN as entity and the nations of ASEAN to support the maintenance and observance of the Law of the Sea? I think that's a present issue. Obviously, Japan is very important to us. On Indonesia, I think we should be doing far more on Indonesia's economic recovery. And as I said, I recognise former Finance Minister, this is not entirely in our in our control, but we can do more. We can do more to ensure that there is we support ourselves but also galvanise support for Indonesia's economic recovery.

LT:

Just talking about institutions and entities and things, what's your assessment about the underlying structures in both the US and China, particularly the US, I mean, there's been a lot of when, when President Trump arrived, there's a lot of discussion about how much the institutions of the state would sort of keep things going on a steady path. Now, we don't know the result of the US elections. But what's your sense of how those institutions if you like, and what they call the foreign policy establishment have survived the last four years and that increasing sort of assertiveness, shall we say from the Trump administration, and where would it find itself the day after the presidential election?

PW:

So, some of that invites commentary on domestic US politics, so can I, can I answer it like this? We’re, as a friend and an ally in the United States. Our message should be the US is a great democracy. It is very important to its, to its friends and allies and, and to its reputation in the world for it to remain a strong, incredible democracy. And that the principles that underpin democracy, that every vote is counted, that elections are fair, that the institutions of the democratic system operate appropriately. This matters not just to us domestic politics, but this matters to its friends and allies, and it matters to the world.

LT:

Australia’s obviously taken a much more assertive posture on China in recent months. What do you understand by the for defense strategy? What, what do you think? Where's that trying to land?

PW:

I think shape, deter. Shape and deter. We're seeking to shape our strategic environment. We're seeking to deter and in the event of any credible threat, obviously to repel, so. But it has bipartisan support. But the point I would make is that in these times you need every lever of your foreign policy and strategic policy working. Military is one. Tick. But you also need your diplomatic engagement, your economic engagement, your development assistance, to be working towards similar ends. So, I think it is short sighted the way in which this government has continued to reduce their development of the aid program, leaving aside the ethical propositions. It's short sighted to cut the health programs to Indonesia by 80% prior to the pandemic. That is a short-sighted move from Australia's national perspective. So, my comment on the defense announcements was we support them. But we always need to do more. And we should observe how others behave in soft power matters, diplomacy matters, economic engagement matters. And in the absence of that, in the absence of us doing that, there are others who will fill the space. And what we want to be, is we do want to be a leader in the region. Julie Bishop used to talk about being a partner of choice, we don't get that by disengaging, you don't get that by cutting programs. You get that by showing leadership, we should be a leader in the region.

LT:

We should be a leader in the region. But we also, as you say, need a multi, multi, multifaceted relationship with China. And the government's been doing a lot of things on China, all of which are quite assertive, including the recent announcement on, on sort of reasserting if you like, the federal government's controller the external policy. How much do you think the government rhetoric on China is now being influenced by domestic considerations?

PW:

I've said for some time we should be more strategic and less political as a nation when it comes to our relationship with China. I speak in the essay about domestic escalation. Escalation for domestic political purposes has been contrary to our national interest. We have enough challenges in our bilateral relationship with China without adding to them by engaging in domestic politics. We want a productive relationship with China. We want a relationship in which Australia's values and interests are respected. We recognise China is increasingly assertive. We are going to have issues on which we disagree, and it will be a challenge and it is a challenge to manage those productively. We need to do that. Disengagement isn't an option. And there's no issue from climate change to the global economy where China doesn't matter to Australia. So, the question is how we engage. And I do think some of the rhetoric, particularly from some of the backbenchers on the coalition side hasn't been helpful. On the recent announcement, I think it's self-evident that the Commonwealth has responsibility for Foreign Affairs for external affairs. That's, that's in the constitution and it's self-evident. But they've engaged in a lot of mixed messages. Yeah, we've had the Port of Darwin decision. We've had Simon Birmingham welcoming Victoria's BRI agreement. We've had Steven Cerber, going to China and signing an MOU, which the government still refuses to release on the BRI. And then we have a whole heap of political messaging through the media. And my point is if we want to safeguard our sovereignty, it's more than an announcement and there's more than, you know, putting a law into the parliament, a bill into the parliament. It's actually working with other parts of our institutions to ensure people understand what can and should be done, or should not be done to protect Australia's sovereignty.

LT:

And one of the examples of that would be the universities coming back very hard in response to that announcement saying, look, we've already got a committee that looks at these issues. And we're very conscious of the national security discussion, which we're having already with agencies. So, you know, why are you having another go at this?

PW:

And why are you doing it without talking to us? I think that's my point is that it's an announcement. But no follow up.

LT:

You talk in the essay about how the pandemic has brought nationalism to the fore, along with its occasional companion xenophobia, nativism and isolationism. Where are we on that scale now?

PW:

Depends who you’re talking to I think. It'd be a few in the coalition party room who’d be a long way down that path. When people are frightened, lessons of history tell us this, when people are frightened, when there are economic or in this case public health challenges, where people feel insecure, it is pretty easy for nationalism. And as I described the various components to nationalism to gain a head of steam. And political leaders, people in my position people in Scott Morrison's position, we need to make sure we handle it responsibly.

LT:

But we have retreated, haven't we? In our political discussion.

PW:

I think, I think, I think our political discussion, at times, yes, I think we see elements of our political discussion which are much more inward looking, and voices which are much more inward looking. And I think at times, a bit of a tendency to suggest that others who have a different position somehow or not patriotic Australians.

There is a very important discussion at the moment, a very important job at the moment, for political leaders, for all leaders, which is A: how do we handle this now? but B: how do we come through this? And the world as we know it is, I don't think returning. So, we do have an opportunity to think about what priorities do we have? What, what sort of Australia do we want as we come out of this? And I'd posit a few things I think, you know, insecurity of work public health frameworks, making sure our Medicare and our broader public hospital systems prioritised, looking after, making sure frontline workers are respected and properly renumerated. Those are the sorts of things we do, and I think the same thing come, you know, the same conversations occurring about our relationship with the rest of the world. The point I want to keep making is: we are more secure in a world where when we engage, we are we given our sizes of substantial power. We need a multilateral system, which ameliorates the raw power of great powers. We need rules  we benefit from them. I think humanity benefits from rules and norms and universal principles. And we benefit in our region from a region which not only is stable and prosperous, but also respects sovereignty. And all of those things require engagement. And that's not even included, and then of course, there's the economic point, which is, you know, if you hamper our economic engagement, and overly impinge upon them, it actually will mean we recover slower, will mean low wages and fewer jobs in Australia. Now, there's a legitimate discussion, I think about. What does what do we want to do here? There's a legitimate discussion about the consequences of global supply chains, which were not resilient in the face of a pandemic. And I think we should be thinking through that. But I think that's a different point to the point you're making, which is just fortress Australia.

'We need a multilateral system, which ameliorates the raw power of great powers. We need rules – we benefit from them'

LT:

Well, one of your repeated themes tonight and also in the essays about the importance of multilateralism, as you've just been discussing, and institutions, we have seen a dramatic decline of global institutions, particularly as the Americans have withdrawn over the last few years. Can they come back? And I suppose my other question related to that is, should they come back? Are the, some of those institutions no longer fit for purpose? Maybe they need to be replaced by something else. But, of all of those organisations and the way they're governed. Do you think we need some new architecture?

PW:

Nothing is improved by vacating the space. And so, nobody would suggest that every multilateral institution or entity is perfect. But vacating the space is not going to improve their performance or make them more fit for purpose. That's my view. So yes, we should, we opposed. The opposition was very clear that we thought the Trump administration's withdrawal from the World Health Organization was wrong at the time of a global pandemic, whatever your criticisms of the WHO, and it's not a perfect institution, are not improved by withdrawal of funds and resources and engagement. So, yes, my view about multilateralism is this: we need it, Australia needs it. We need to commit ourselves to doing what we can to renew it. We need to put our resources in, into multilateral institutions and frameworks. We need to put good people in, we are good multilateralists, it's part of our historical tradition. It's part of who we are. And we don't have time for negative globalism. This is this was Mr. Morrison's slogan when it was suited him last year. We don't have time for negative globalism because we need strong multilateral institutions, and we're going to have to invest in them in terms of our people and our resources. And we have to work with others.

LT:

Beyond the institutions, though, going back to your point about photo opportunities, there are things like the G7, which must, I think, the whole discussion about that potential meeting really raised the question of well, what does the G7 actually mean anymore? To what extent is it been hijacked from its original purposes. Those sorts of those sorts of meetings are probably not going to carry the weight.

PW:

It's interesting to ask that that's an interesting question, what does the architecture of the post COVID world or the post pandemic world look like? And when we have traditionally, we have argued for a reinvigoration of the G20. I think the last time the world confronted a global crisis, which was the financial crisis, I think the G20 was central and critical to the global response. I would, I would argue that we should have, the G20 should have been a central point for coordinating the global response, not just the fiscal and economic response, but the public health response. And the fact is that the failure of the global community to work together in this pandemic and in the economic recovery to the pandemic will lead to more poverty and more lives being lost.

LT:

What could it have achieved? We did. Why has it failed? And what could it have achieved?

PW:

We don't we have no coordinated international economic and fiscal response, unlike the the GFC. And as you know, if you coordinate fiscal responses, you get more bang for your buck. We have no we have no coordinated public health response. And we had no, globally, and we had no, we have no coordinated response on the vaccine. In fact, we've seen too much vaccine nationalism. And, yeah, we are. Common threats need to be met by collective solutions, whether it's COVID-19, or climate change. These are intrinsically risks and threats that no single country can solve on their own. No matter how much nationalist rhetoric we engage in. So, we have don't have time for negative globalism We need his multilateral renewal of multilateralism and Australia in amongst it, trying to help craft a solution.

LT:

Based on what we currently know, and given that everything is for change in a pandemic, how do you believe Australia's foreign policy should be being remade right now? What, what should we be doing right now?

PW:

Well, first, I argue for greater urgency. That we actually understand, what we were previously doing won't be enough, we have to do much more, we have to be much more creative. Second, I say we need to be more self-reliant, and more ambitious. So, we have to recognise that we can work with our allies. But ultimately, we have to chart our course in the world and we have to be ambitious in that. We can't wait for others to do it. If we wait for others to do it, the region will be shaped in ways that we may not wish. We need to renew multilateralism. We need to work harder in our region and I think we need to be less political and more strategic. I think they've been examples in over the recent years, recent months under Scott Morrison, where there's been a fair bit of politics in foreign policy. You know, the moving the embassy to Jerusalem, what that did to our relationship with Indonesia, that was short sighted. It was about politics, not strategy. And think there have been other examples of that. So, we need to be strategic. And we do have to step up and, you know, we can choose not to, but we shouldn't pretend there's no consequences to that. There are consequences to that, which is, I think, a region which is less consonant with our interests.

LT:

Should we be being more ostentatiously out there offering, offering a helping hand to other countries? Are we doing that enough?

PW:

I'm not sure I don't. You shouldn't do things ostentatiously. You should do things effectively. And you should demonstrate genuinely that we understand that their interests are our interests. One of the points I make is, we do best when we move from them to us. And our strength in the Pacific and in Southeast Asia is if we are able to do that and demonstrate in a whole range of ways what that means, whether that's development assistance, cooperation, working with them to charter their economic recovery and to find a path through their diplomacy, soft power projecting into the region. We need to move from them to us. And if we are seen to do that, genuinely I think that immeasurably enhances our capacity to work with them to shape the region we want.

LT:

Finally, speaking of something that's really practical that moving, I'm sort of a bit perplexed about the lack of apparent international conversation about how we get people moving again. I'm not saying everybody will just be able to resume normal broadcasting, but it doesn't seem to be much discussion about actually setting up sort of an institutional system to deal with quarantine, to deal with people who have infections around the world as an international standard. Is that something that would be a good starting point, particularly in the region?

PW:

I think so. I mean, as I said, the world that we knew is not coming back in the same form, and certainly not in anytime soon and I suspect won't. Consequence of that is there a whole range of international arrangements, protocols, agreements, which we wouldn't have contemplated as being necessary. So, and you list one of them, you know, as we gradually reopen borders, as travel gradually returns and that might take some time. Having agreed policy frameworks around that with other nations will be necessary.

LT:

Thanks for discussing all of these things with the Wheeler Centre tonight.

PW:

It's great to have been with you.

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