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Opinion

Morrison -- never mind the barbecue, where's the beef?

Victorious Australian leader's folksy pitch reassures Trump but offers few foreign policy lines

Scott Morrison, right, gives some meat to Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill: Morrison projected himself as a good barbecue host.   © Reuters

After pulling off the most remarkable escape from electoral defeat in memory, Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison joins an array of conservative leaders worldwide who take some delight in standing against liberal and "progressive causes."

In Asia, he will keep Australia aligned with the United States in opposing Chinese strategic advances.

Morrison will meet leaders of other major powers a month from now at the G-20 summit in Osaka as one elected in his own right, rather than as the placeholder he has seemed to be for the past nine months.

But what will they find in him?

As prime minister and on the hustings, Morrison projected himself as an archetypal Anglo-Australian family man, interested in his local rugby league team, the Cronulla Sharks, the cheesy ballads of an Italo-Australian singer, a good barbecue and the ecstatic Sunday worship at his Pentecostal church.

His election campaign was almost entirely about domestic issues: he condemned his Australian Labor Party rival Bill Shorten as a "liar" and would-be thief of old people's pension savings, and had little positive to offer beyond an immediate tax refund for all of about 1,000 Australian dollars, a projected budget surplus, tax cuts several years ahead, and liberal pork-barreling to local projects.

A fast talker who tends to answer hard questions with a welter of words that avoid the point, his messages are bland. "It is my vision for this country as your Prime Minister to keep the Promise of Australia to all Australians," went one. "I believe in a fair go for those who have a go," went another.

The only time foreign policy entered the campaign came when the former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating said Australian intelligence agencies had "lost their strategic bearings" on China and that their warnings about Chinese political interference in Australia had too much influence. "When the security agencies are running foreign policy, the nutters are in charge," Keating said, saying a new government should "clean them out."

"You know, China, whatever you think, China is a great state," Keating told reporters attending Labor's campaign launch. "It's always been a great state and now has the second-largest economy, soon the largest economy in the world. If we have a foreign policy that does not take that into account, we are fools."

Shorten's team immediately distanced itself from Keating's remarks and voiced support for the intelligence agencies. But its shadow foreign minister, Malaysian-born Penny Wong, did say that the Coalition had mismanaged the China relationship, and that a "more considered, disciplined and consistent approach" was needed.

Wong said a shifting balance of power in Asia meant a Labor Government would need to "redefine" its relationship with Beijing, and no longer simply seek security from the United States while trying to quarantine vital economic ties with China.

The issue did play some part in deciding votes in several Sydney and Melbourne electorates where Australia's 1.2 million citizens of Chinese descent are most concentrated, with Morrison making visits to assure Chinese-Australians the government did not see them as a fifth column.

The China question also loomed large in the Trump's Administration's relief at Morrison's survival. Reports from Washington said senior White House and National Security Committee officials had been worried about Australia taking a softer line with China under Labor. They privately hailed the result as ensuring "continuity" in U.S.-Australia relations, and praised Australia's early decision to ban China's Huawei from its fifth-generation mobile network.

Trump greeted Morrison as a kindred soul.   © AP

Trump himself greeted Morrison as a kindred soul, sending a Tweet congratulating him on a "great win" and has expressed admiration for Morrison's tough stand in blocking the arrival of asylum-seeker boats from Indonesia and Australia's points-based immigration system. Morrison has followed Trump part of the way in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. A first presidential visit to Australia is being discussed for later this year.

Yet while some commentators are likening Morrison's surprise victory to the shocks of Trump's election and the Brexit vote in 2016, comparisons only go so far. True, Morrison's attack on Shorten echoed Trump's "Lyin' Hillary" reference to Hillary Clinton, his 2016 rival, while his support for coal mining jobs over carbon pricing lured blue-collar workers away from Labor, as Trump had done with the traditional Democrat base.

But concerns about climate change saw a young independent oust the climate-denier former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott from the wealthy suburban electorate he had represented for the last 25 years. On the same issue, another independent turned a second posh Liberal stronghold in Sydney into a marginal seat.

The government will need several such independents to get legislation and budgets passed through the upper house, the Senate, where the Coalition still won't have a majority. Abbott's removal greatly weakens the Coalition's right wing on issues like climate change, gender equality, and immigration.

Morrison is like Trump in standing distinct from his own party. His campaign was a one-man band, with most of his ministers kept out of sight because of the public rancor they arouse from the past six years of internal party fights that made Morrison the third prime minister in six years, after Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. Even the Liberal party name was barely visible.

This allows Morrison to shape the government's agenda pretty much as he pleases, within the limits of a narrow lower-house majority and the senate balance. But if he sees looming threats -- a slowing economy, an increased risk of climate-linked disasters, a possible Chinese slump, the U.S.-Iran conflict, the plight of asylum-seekers held in Pacific camps, or turmoil in nearby Papua New Guinea -- he's assured Australians there's nothing to worry about.

If he has plans to deal with such dangers, he has yet to share them -- either with Australian voters or with foreign partners. So if there is a policy vacuum at the heart of the new government, Morrison will have nobody to blame but himself. Canberra's partners should not be concerned about an early rush of new initiatives, on China or on anything else.

Hamish McDonald is a Sydney-based author and a former foreign editor of the Sydney Morning Herald

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