In a vibrant liberal democracy, contestability of ideas is the lifeblood of the parliamentary system. Since federation, such debates have been crucial to the effective formulation, adjustment and refinement of draft legislation affecting the nation.
The sometimes bruising exchange of such ideas has been described in gladiatorial terms – winner takes all. For the most part, however, it has allowed for both sides of politics to modify their positions, taking into account proposed amendments drawn from suggestions coming from both sides of parliament.
The system is not perfect, but as Winston Churchill once asserted, “democracy is the worst form of government … apart from all the others”.
For more than a century, major issues of national security have been debated in Australia’s parliament this way and, on occasion, issues have been highlighted with a rhetorical flourish for dramatic effect in an attempt to wedge the other side. Sometimes that has worked well, and at other times it has backfired spectacularly.
History is replete with examples of wedge national security issues coming back to haunt those who tried to use them. Billy McMahon’s excoriation of Gough Whitlam for travelling to Mao’s China in mid-1971 is one example, when it soon became clear that the US government of Richard Nixon was close on his heels, visiting China for a rapprochement. McMahon never recovered politically from the humiliating exposure of being out of touch.
For some time the national security arena has been gathering steam and heat. President Xi’s exercise of wolf warrior diplomacy and sharp power has seen Australia become increasingly wary and uneasy about Chinese initiatives at home and abroad.
That unease resulted in the blockage of Chinese telco Huawei from establishing its 5G communications infrastructure in Australia. Sensing a wider political and security risk in the Pacific, the Australian government has worked to prevent Chinese telecommunications infrastructure being installed in places like Solomon Islands as well.
That was exacerbated, in Chinese eyes, by calls for transparency over the origins of the virus first detected in Wuhan. China presented a list of 14 demands which, if agreed to, would have amounted to a humiliating backdown the likes of which no Australian politician could contemplate without compromising their electoral prospects.
Along the way, ALP leader Anthony Albanese and his team have assiduously avoided giving the impression that they would take a softer line on China should they win office this year. They have even distanced themselves from prominent former Labor leaders Paul Keating and Bob Carr, who have taken a softer angle on China’s sharp power.
When combined with poor polling results and suggestions Keating and Carr’s views may be a more accurate representation of closely held ALP views, the Coalition has taken to the offensive to convince the electorate that national security is most safely left in their hands.
The government latched on to a piece written by Bruce Haigh, a staunch government critic seen as sympathetic to China, which was published in the Chinese Communist party’s tabloid the Global Times on Monday. The piece, headlined “Weak Australian leadership inhibits potential relationship reset with China” seems to have hit a raw nerve in the Coalition and perhaps pointed to a deeper fear – that by winning the election, the ALP may be able to reset relations with China by virtue of not being Morrison and his government, without necessarily making a substantial policy change.
Fearing such an outcome, it appears, they have picked up the issue like a cudgel to wield against Albanese and the federal parliamentary opposition.
In doing so, some caution is called for.
The Coalition has sensed the ALP’s willingness to use the election as a policy inflection point. An ALP election victory could allow for a not-unreasonable policy reset. Such a reset conceivably could be used to try to re-establish more normal relations in a face-saving way that avoids demeaning backdowns by Australia over the 14 points, or by China over Xi’s gratuitous wolf warrior sanctions.
Such a use of diplomacy could serve the interests of both sides. After all, China is still Australia’s largest trading partner and it still needs what we have. It is worth remembering: China doesn’t buy from Australia because it likes our liberal democratic model, it does so because it is the best deal it can find. We retain some leverage.
The Coalition appears eager to avoid allowing the ALP to claim credit for that outcome and to make the ALP look weak on national security.
This fight is being led, it seems, by defence minister Peter Dutton. Prime minister Scott Morrison, eager to burnish his own national security credentials, has been trying, it seems, to keep up with him.
They should proceed with considerable caution as the rhetorical sword they wish to wield against the ALP is double-edged. It could harm them more, and most likely will cause some harm to our body politic.
Already there is growing unease and distrust of government exaggeration and efforts to control: over vaccines, over lockdowns and over a range of related issues. Many are frustrated and some want to lash out. The director general of security, Mike Burgess, has called on both sides, in effect, to back off, declaring this does not help him and his staff in Asio to counter the surge in foreign intervention and cyber-attacks, let alone politically and religiously motivated extremism.
Debate is healthy and important in a democracy. It should be encouraged, but within accepted and recognised bounds. Issues should be addressed through extant parliamentary and governmental mechanisms like the foreign investment review board, the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security and the joint parliamentary standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade.
The stakes are higher than they have been in generations, with a spike in great power contestation generating uncertainty and insecurity and which overlaps with a spectrum of governance challenges (terrorism, organised and transnational crime) and looming environmental crises (including climate change and pandemics).
Combined, these challenges demand a sensible, level-headed consideration of the national interest and the long-term interests of the nation. Short-term politicking should proceed while firmly keeping these concerns in mind.
• John Blaxland is professor of international security and intelligence studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School of Asia and Pacific Affairs, College of Asia and the Pacific, at the Australian National University