Amidst domestic churn, new Australian PM signals foreign policy continuity

As Anthony Albanese is sworn in as Australia’s 31st Prime Minister, he will be conscious of the deep electoral angst against traditional politics and a groundswell in support for a contemporary avatar of Australia’s own “Aam Aadmi” politics: The Teal independents, a motley group brought together primarily by the lack of mainstream urgency to act against climate change.

But the alacrity with which the PM has acted to ensure that he and his Foreign Minister Penny Wong attend the Quad summit in Tokyo on Tuesday, should reassure those concerned about the future direction of Canberra’s foreign policy under a Labor government. At a moment of profound domestic churning, Australia’s foreign policy is unlikely to swing, especially under the charge of the wise and incisive Wong. This holds true, particularly of the near-consensus in Canberra about the importance of India and of improving bilateral relations.

After nearly a decade in opposition, Labor has come back to government. But that victory disguises the rise of a new force in Australian politics, the Teal independents and the fall in support for the Coalition (Liberals and Nationals) and for Labor, with a marginal increase in the standing of the Greens. The Teal independents, mostly women, are not organizationally connected except through the Teal color (a blue-green that they used in the campaign) and financial support from an advocacy group — Climate 200.

The Teal independents have won at least nine seats; most of them, the safest blue-chip Liberal seats. Consider this: Kew, where my family has lived for the last decade, is part of the Kooyong constituency and a bastion of the Liberal Party ever since Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving PM, occupied the seat in 1934. The incumbent, Josh Frydenberg , was the Treasurer in the Scott Morrison government and most saw him becoming PM one day. Frydenberg has been defeated by a rookie in politics, Monique Ryan — one of the Teals. Ryan, a well-regarded doctor, ran an electrifying campaign with hundreds of volunteers who campaigned door-to-door on just three plans — action on climate change; transparency and integrity in politics; and safety for women.

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Climate 200 was set up as a “community crowd-funded initiative” by Simon Holmes à Court, a political activist and clean energy investor (and son of Australia’s first billionaire) that supported candidates committed to a science-based political response to the climate crisis ; restoring integrity to politics, and advancing gender equity. The group backed 23 “Teal” candidates across the country, including the journalist Zoe Daniel in Goldstein and Allegra Spender in Wentworth, who defeated the Indian-origin Dave Sharma (a former diplomat who had served as Australia’s Ambassador to Israel).

Climate 200 has a deep resonance with sections of conservative liberal voters who are concerned about the end of a “lifestyle” because of climate change. As Australia’s best-known novelist Richard Flanagan wrote last year: “Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen .”

Not surprisingly Climate managed to raise over $10 million, amidst concerns about the degree of control it would have over the Teals and suggestions of a conflict of interest with Holmes à Court’s clean energy business.

When the Albanian arrives in Tokyo to meet with other leaders of the Quad, much will be expected of him. The leaders will seek reassurance that Australia is still as committed to the Quad as the previous Liberal government. For the Australian PM, this will be a moment to demonstrate that he is different from his predecessor, but equally committed to the multilateral arrangement and to the bilateral relations that have been fostered over the last decade, including with India.

To be sure, Albanian is not Scott Morrison. Morrison was flamboyant, with a background in marketing. He had headed Tourism Australia and presided over perhaps the most controversial campaign video ever launched to promote Australia tourism: “So, where the bloody hell are you?”

In contrast, the Albanian has a low-profile presence and a workman-like attitude and is given to a considered rather than a brilliant spontaneous response on most issues. Remember that Albanian was a child of deprivation rather than privilege. He was brought up by a single mother who suffered dreadfully because of rheumatoid arthritis while living in council housing in Sydney. Success did not come easily to him, but whether in the party or the government, he was seen as a coalition builder having the skills and patience to generate a consensus.

Although he has roots in the left-wing of the Labor Party (in his youth he identified with the struggles of the African National Congress against apartheid and the campaigns for nuclear disarmament — both have a resonance in India) he is a pragmatic leader who understands that Australia faces today a deeply volatile situation in the region and beyond.

One of the most animated moments in the electoral campaign was when Morrison suggested that Albanese was soft on China. Albanese responded by describing the PM’s words as an outrageous slur. This was after he had questioned the government on its failures over not doing enough to prevent the Solomon Islands from signing a controversial security deal with China.

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Albanese is fortunate to have the brilliant and charismatic Wong as his Foreign Minister. Wong, who has been part of the Australia India Leadership Dialogue which I chaired in the past, genuinely believes in the importance of Australia’s partnership with India and has often referred to the fact that it was under the Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, that the policies to reach out to India were first initiated (including overturning the ban on uranium exports to India).

One of the tired cliches about Australia is drawn from Donald Horne’s book The Lucky Country, which suggested that Australia was a lucky country run by second rate leaders. In contrast, by all evidence, the Albanian cabinet is one gifted with outstanding leaders, and hopefully luck will continue to be on its side.

The writer is professor at JNU & honorary professor at the University of Melbourne

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