Scott Morrison may well go down in history as the accidental prime minister but extending the theme to characterise him as accident-prone lets him off the hook far too easily. The biggest revelation of the dysfunctional Morrison government is just how out of his depth its namesake is.
Although one is spoiled for choice when it comes to collating instances of the L-plate PM’s missteps we need look no further than the political and diplomatic mire he has created over the mooted relocation of Australia’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
An issue that began as a spectacularly ill-judged and ham-fisted political gambit during the Wentworth by-election – so transparently replete with ulterior motive as to invite guffaws were the matter not so serious – should have been allowed to recede into the mist of the 24-hour news cycle.
Instead, Morrison, more at ease playing daggy dad or unctuous uncle, decided to flick the switch to sombre statesman and make the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy his diplomatic line in the sand.
A more contentious foreign policy stance is hard to imagine. Nor, for Australia, a more irrelevant and unnecessary position.
And yet, suddenly, implausibly, the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy has become a matter of national interest from which the government will not resile.
Australia’s flirtation with a Jerusalem embassy was problematic enough when it was just a specious thought-bubble; now it has taken on the gravitas of a defining foreign policy milestone.
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has raised the stakes considerably – and gratuitously – with an extraordinary attack on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whom he accused of being anti-Semitic. The prompt for the unseemly onslaught followed an approach by Mahathir to Scott Morrison during the ASEAN Summit in Singapore in which he expressed misgivings about Australia’s consideration of a Jerusalem embassy. (Mahathir’s concern was that such a move would heighten terrorist activity in the region.)
Frydenberg’s discourse seemed more like school-yard barbs than the considered reflections of a senior government minister.
“Dr Mahathir does have form, as you know, he’s made a number of derogatory comments in the past about Jews being hook-nosed, he has questioned the number of people that have been killed in the Holocaust and he also saw the banning of Schindler’s List, the movie about the saviour of millions of people by righteous gentiles through that horrible period in world history,” Frydenberg told the ABC.
Frydenberg weighs in with his size-12s
Further wedging the government into an unwinnable corner of its own making, Frydenberg thundered with patriotic indignation: “Australia will make its own decisions based on its national interest.”
As Treasurer Frydenberg would not normally aver on matters of high foreign policy, but as a prominent Jewish MP he clearly felt entitled to brandish his size-12s in such sensitive terrain. Rather than caution his senior minister for his potentially damaging lack of diplomatic finesse, Morrison explained that Frydenberg was simply “filling in the history of [Mahathir’s] record on various issues over time”.
Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr was closer to the mark in his assessment of Frydenberg’s dummy-spit when he tweeted: “I can’t believe Josh Frydenberg has taken it on himself to attack [the] Malaysian PM. Federal Treasurers don’t assail leaders of friendly countries. What got into him?”
Frydenberg petulantly responded to Carr’s criticism by posing what he no doubt thought a clever line of attack: “Does he [Carr] agree with Dr Mahathir that less than six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust? Does he agree with Dr Mahathir that Jews are hook-nosed people? Does he agree with Dr Mahathir that Schindler’s List shouldn’t have been shown in Malaysia?”
This is what stands for public discourse in the dying days of the Morrison government.
Former Prime Minister John Howard, who favours the Jerusalem move, has hardly added to the substance of the “debate”.
“I can’t accept that Australian foreign policy, particularly on something as basic as where we put an embassy, should be determined by other countries,” Howard told The Weekend Australian.
As if the decision is simply one of choosing a better neighbourhood.
The typically reckless decision by the Trump administration to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem – thus recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – was never going to attract Australia’s reproach, deserved though it would have been. On matters concerning Israel Australian foreign policy has always erred on the side of indulgence.
Australia’s idea of principle when it comes to Israel bears an uncanny resemblance to cowardice in the form of abstentions in key United Nations votes. In December last year Australia abstained from a UN vote condemning the US embassy move to Jerusalem (overwhelmingly carried) as it did in 2012 when the UN voted, again overwhelmingly, to grant the Palestinian Authority status as a non-member state.
Not surprisingly, nobody – neither the US or Israel, nor whatever might qualify as the Jewish lobby in Australia – expected, much less sought, Canberra to weigh in on the deeply contentious embassy issue.
Incompetent foreign policy neophyte
The US decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem – announced in December 2017 and implemented in May – is a major set-back to the already slim prospect of a two-state solution. Palestine considers East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. For Trump to describe the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as “a long overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement” is bone-headed sophistry.
Enter newly minted Prime Minister Scott Morrison, facing defeat in the blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth, who places the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy firmly on the political agenda, where it stubbornly remains thanks to a prime minister who seems incapable of killing off the issue.
To argue that the embassy issue is one of national interest is so comprehensively bogus that Australians are entitled to conclude that their prime minister is either an incompetent foreign policy neophyte or just another disingenuous politician. It’s both: too green to discern the dangers of his Jerusalem thought-bubble, too arrogant and politically vulnerable to admit a mistake.
Morrison demonstrated what national interest really looks like when within a week of becoming prime minister he made a point of visiting Indonesia to meet with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. High on his mind was the much anticipated $16 billion free-trade deal with Indonesia.
Not so high was Morrison’s plan to relocate Australia’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, because there was no such plan. That was in August. Fast-forward to October and Indonesia, Australia’s closest neighbour with the world’s largest Muslim population is aghast to learn, pretty well at the same time as Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne, defence and security chiefs and senior diplomats that Australia is considering following the Trump line on Jerusalem.
At first blush, the Government is right to assert that Australian foreign policy is for Australia to decide. Except that this is not and never was a serious – let alone credible – foreign policy position.
The failed gambit was an insult to Jewish voters in Wentworth, who rejected it for the cynical sop that it was; it’s an insult to the people of Australia who have yet to be presented with a coherent reason for such a momentous shift in foreign policy; and it’s an insult to our Muslim-majority neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia rightly aggrieved at Australia’s insensitivity and amateurish diplomacy. It’s no wonder that Australia’s pretensions of being a bona fide member of the Asian community are scoffed at, not least by Malaysia’s Mahathir.
Scott Morrison insists that a decision on Jerusalem will not be made until Christmas. He should give himself an early Christmas present and bring this sorry saga to a close now.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher