In the midst of navigating our nation through the toughest economic recession since the Great Depression in 1930, the Prime Minister has called for a more united Australia to speak with “one voice” on the global stage. “Protecting and promoting Australia’s national interest is the primary job of the Federal Government”, Morrison reminded the Australian public in a press conference on the 27th of August. He was speaking of the new Australian Foreign Relations Bill, legislation that aims to ensure greater consistency in how the country faces the world.
The legislation would require state or territory governments to adopt a national perspective in dealings with foreign powers, one that aligns with Australia’s values and foreign policy objectives, as determined by the Commonwealth. The ultimate objective of the bill, however, is to establish inter-governmental cooperation on foreign agreements so as to see them work together as a team on the world stage.
Prior to the introduction of this bill, there has been no requirement, or even a clear understanding, that the states and territories would consult the federal government when they make arrangements with foreign powers. These agreements cover a broad range of issues, spanning trade and economic deals, such as the Victorian Belt and Road initiative with China, to sister-city relationships.
These arrangements are a valuable contribution to Australia’s international engagement. However, the underlying agenda of the proposed legislation represents the view that without the expertise of the Commonwealth or an opportunity to review and consult on the proposed agreements, Australia is at risk of having an uncoordinated, patchwork approach to contracts, relations and collaborations. This, it is said, could have an adverse effect on foreign policy.
According to the Commonwealth, the new legislation will equip state and territory governments with the confidence that they are acting in a sense that is consistent with Australia’s national interest and values, when entering into foreign arrangements. It is seen as necessary to ensure “consistency, consultation and due diligence on undertakings and arrangements”. And this, the PM argues, is what the Australian population expect of their national government.
Morrison’s view is not universally shared, however. Concerns have been raised regarding the extent to which this new bill will encroach on the sovereignties of state and territory governments. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne, claims that it’s not designed to “impinge on state and territory government’s proper functioning or to micromanage these dealings with the world”.
But the concerns will take some quelling, particularly given the current fracturing of the national Cabinet in relation to COVID-19 responses. And it doesn’t help that the PM has behaved rather dismissively when faced with state and territory head questions. As the Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted, “there is only one sovereignty in Australia and it’s Australian. I mean we are sovereign Australians. We are all Australians and that’s where our sovereignty rests.”
Nevertheless, commentators have highlighted the hypocrisy that lies in the Commonwealth’s response. They have been quick to point out how this “constitutional flex” is overreaching and goes far beyond its objective to protect and promote Australia’s national interest. They say if the bill passes, there will be implications for the viability of the university sector, exchange programs with sister schools, and perhaps most of all, local exporters. Moreover, there are more than 130 agreements that states and territories currently have in place with foreign governments. Under this legislation, they would all need the tick of approval from Payne, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Whilst the Prime Minister continues to wave away inconvenient questions, many regard this as a retaliatory move by the PM in his feud with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews over not being consulted on the State’s arrangements with China, the nation’s number one trading partner. In response to the proposal, Andrews came out swinging, calling for the PM to have plans in place to implement dozens of free trade agreements to make up for the Belt and Road Initiative that will be the first to be scrapped if this Bill passes. With a strong hint of condescension, he says he “look[s] forward” to hearing what the PM can drum up.
A united Australia or a scramble for power… The machinations over this bill are a space to watch. What’s for sure, they will be played out at a time when Australia’s heads of government are increasingly fragmented in their views on how to deal with matters that affect Australians most.