Eighteen months after Scott Morrison delivered his “negative globalism” diatribe, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade continues to flout the law by refusing an Australia Institute freedom-of-information request that seeks to get the background and reaction from foreign diplomats to the Prime Minister’s now infamous speech.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference following a national cabinet meeting, at Parliament House in Canberra, Friday, July 2, 2021. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

At this rate, the “negative globalism” doctrine will end before we discover how it began.

The fact that the Prime Minister is overseas at the “G7-plus” summit in the middle of a pandemic, with an election looming, underscores just how important global engagement is. Scott Morrison has much to risk by not being at home with all the domestic politics at play. He will no doubt be criticised by some for abandoning ship during the vaccine rollout and quarantine troubles.

But it is a good thing that he is going. Politicians should travel more, not less. Cheap headlines that criticise the cost of such travel should be resisted. As an important open economy power in an uncertain world with huge geostrategic change underway, statecraft and diplomacy are fundamental to Australian security and prosperity.

Denigrating politicians as “international jet-setters” suggests that the real work of running the country is always done domestically, when the opposite is just as often true.

The big issues of our age are global: the pandemic, the race to the bottom on tax, unregulated tech giants, the rise of China, and of course climate change – just to name a few. Just as the issues are global, the solutions are ultimately international as well.

However, the Prime Minister is his own worst enemy. His past allegiance with Donald Trump’s rhetoric in that 2019 address to the Lowy Institute in which he railed against “negative globalism” serve to undermine his new calls for international co-operation. Domestic public opinion cannot be so easily turned on and off. The Prime Minister has risked undermining the often fragile public support for international organisations and co-operation.

The first U-turn came last year, when the Prime Minister proposed the World Health Organization be given “weapons inspector”-style investigators and the veto rights of individual member states be removed. Another came this week when he called on liberal democracies to “buttress” the World Trade Organization, so it can better penalise “bad behaviour when it occurs”.

“Negative globalism” has joined “debt and deficit” as a relic of the pre-Covid age. What was “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy” in 2019 is now the “rules-based international order”. Two years ago, the Prime Minister said globalism should not “direct and centralise” and “impose a mandate”. He now warns that the coercive powers of these international bodies are too limited, too weak or too infrequently wielded.

The pandemic requires a global vaccine rollout. Otherwise, there will always be the risk of an outbreak from returned Australians in quarantine, not to mention unsustainable limitations on international travel. Rich countries have “hoovered up” the available vaccines, but a “two-track pandemic” ultimately hurts all of us. Until we are all safe, no one is safe.

The great technology disruptions caused by digital platforms like Google and Facebook, whose secret and unregulated algorithms threaten democracy, cannot be addressed in one country alone. The tech giants have already shown their willingness to punish individual countries – Google against Spain’s modest levy on search snippets in 2014 and Facebook against Australia earlier this year when the pages of government departments, emergency services, regulators, charities, trade unions and news services were indiscriminately blocked. Nor are all the actors who spread online disinformation about Australia based here.

And just this week, the G7 has flagged placing a global floor on tax rates and measures to stop companies shifting profits for tax purposes. The globalised economy encourages countries like Ireland, Hungary and Cyprus to set low corporate tax rates to attract multinational corporations, who make most of their sales in higher-taxing jurisdictions. Agreement on a minimum tax rate – though the feted 15 per cent is too low, and Biden’s proposed 21 per cent would be better – reduces this perverse incentive that has fed a race to the bottom.

The rise of China, and its increased willingness to flex its muscles when it comes to trade with Australia or democracy in Hong Kong, needs a firm but measured response from liberal democracies. However, we cannot expect China to respect an international order that Australia does not. When the Prime Minister rejected the authority of international organisations, he put wind in China’s sails.

As for climate, the G7-plus summit marks the beginning of a new storm of diplomatic pressure on Australia. This pressure is why Australia will have a net-zero by 2050 target by the time the Glasgow COP comes around in November, regardless of who is Prime Minister. That is a done deal. The election may come before November, allowing Morrison to sidestep the issue during the campaign, but one way or another Australia will adopt the 2050 net-zero target this year.

The real question now is whether the government will commit to a short-term target that measures up to President Biden’s recent announcement. The United States has committed to reduce emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2030, abating a huge 5.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Australia’s goal of a 26 to 28 per cent reduction by 2030 is not even as ambitious as the US’s previous target, let alone their new one.

The Prime Minister has made much of the need for liberal democracies to work together; he could start by matching the United States’ 2030 climate target.

Abandoning negative globalism requires a bigger U-turn than any that have been made so far. The biggest global problem of them all requires the biggest global solution. Australia’s plans to build 23 new coal mines in NSW, open up a whole new coal basin via the Adani mine in Queensland, and approve vast new gas basins in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, show just how negative our attitudes to the globe remain.

Originally published by The Canberra Times on June 12, 2021

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