Malcolm Turnbull’s chance to return the shine to his leadership

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s first major post-election speech on the economy was disrupted by protesters, side-tracking his key messages. Photo: Andrew Meares Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says China faces ”strong reputational costs” if it refuses to abide by the UN ruling. Photo: Tony McDonough
Nanjing Night Net

Malcolm Turnbull is a man under pressure.

With the first anniversary of his prime ministership fast approaching, a too-close-for-comfort election victory, a rampant opposition and beset by political problems ranging from the census debacle, Australia’s offshore processing regime and party room disquiet over the Racial Discrimination Act and superannuation changes – Turnbull made his first move to kick start public debate over budget repair this week.

But his first major post-election speech on the economy was promptly disrupted by protesters, side-tracking the key message.

In just over a week, the 45th Parliament will finally convene and Turnbull needs a circuit breaker to elevate him above the cut and thrust of politics, restore some of the prime ministerial sheen that he has so rapidly lost and allow him to get on the front foot.

He might be about to find it – thousands of kilometres from Canberra.

September summit season is about to begin and Turnbull and his deputy, Julie Bishop, are set to criss-cross the globe to attend the East Asia and G20 summits in Laos and China, before heading to the United Nations General Assembly for the annual leaders’ week of meetings.

Her schedule in the coming months will also take in 2+2 meetings with the foreign affairs and defence ministers of Britain, Germany, Japan, Indonesia, a MIKTA meeting with Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey and many more bilateral meetings with Australian allies.

Bishop – easily one of the government’s most able and erudite performers – and her department are about to begin one of the most significant reviews of Australia’s foreign policy framework in more than a decade.

Not since 2003 has the Australian government produced a foreign affairs white paper.

Free trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea were a glimmer in the government’s eye.

“No country in Asia will supplant Japan’s importance to Australia’s prosperity for at least another decade”, it predicted, though China’s growing importance was “the single most important trend in the region”.

Indonesian stability, deeper engagement with ASEAN nations, the threat of Islamic terrorism and the US alliance were all prominent.

Advancing the National Interest, published on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, gazed into the crystal ball and identified some of the geo-strategic challenges Australia would face (and was certainly more value than the Asia-focused 1997 white paper, which was published on the eve of the Asian Financial Crisis and rapidly dated).

Oddly, the Rudd, Gillard and Abbott governments never produced foreign affairs white papers – though all three commissioned Defence white papers, and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet produced the Asian Century white paper for Gillard.

But planning for the new white paper, which flew under the radar during the election campaign – the Coalition promised to develop a “contemporary and comprehensive foreign policy strategy within 12 months of the election” – is well under way.

Bishop tells Fairfax Media it will establish a “philosophical framework to guide Australia’s engagement, regardless of international events” and will be one of the first tasks set for the new secretary of her department, Frances Adamson.

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To that end, both Bishop and Turnbull should – during the coming month of summits and bilaterals – “pull key regional partners aside and say where does [court ruling] leave us, can we start a conversation about a new plan for the future?”

“It’s time to lift the conversations to a strategic level, to say what does this mean? Essentially we now have an unequivocal international law ruling that China has categorically rejected and we have a situation in which south-east Asian solidarity has splintered.”

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s executive director Peter Jennings says summit season will give Turnbull and Bishop a chance to “touch base with friends … and think through, collectively, how to deal with China, which is emerging as a very different China to 15 years ago”.

“The South China Sea is a symptom of a bigger issue. The only way to deal with China is to have a clear sense of our strategic interest and to argue for them in the face of potentially loud and aggressive diplomacy. We, as a country, need to develop the confidence to do that,” he says.

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Malcolm Turnbull will be hoping his meetings with world leaders will restore some of his diminished political standing – just as it did for Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott – ahead of what will be bare knuckle, year-ending fights to pass the budget and election promises such as the restoration of the construction watchdog.

For Julie Bishop, the coming round of diplomacy may produce less obvious political benefits in the short term.

But for Australia it could prove to be, in the medium term, potentially of far greater import.

James Massola is chief political reporter. Peter Hartcher will return next week.

Follow James Massola on Facebook.

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