Turnbull’s ‘war of words’ with China driven by internal politics

By George Mickhail Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/17 21:38:40

The spectacle of the "war of words" between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and China is no more than a rhetorical gesture by a leader who is under siege to appease hard-liners with deep-seated "cold-war" views of the indefensible Anglo-American supremacy.

It may seem like a low point in Sino-Australian relations, but such a spectacle only overwhelms observers and disconnects them from the machinations of political expediency. 

Our seemingly progressive and pragmatic prime minister, cognizant of the new geopolitical realities, found himself performing quite the balancing act between Australia's strategic economic interests with China and its strategic defense alliance with the US. This left him in a precarious position for not pandering to the whims of an institutionalized conservative oligarchy who are not only at best distrustful of China, but also fail to recognize the end of Anglo-American exceptionalism and the onset of the Asian Century.

His popularity has been declining for a few months and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) have had a 2.5 percent swing over the Coalition in the latest Newspoll results of December 4.

The spectacle of the elites' deliberate propaganda tactics of stoking public fears about all manner of things from the "barbarian hoards" at the gates to the threats of distant rogue dictators, and the growing influence of China as a rising economic regional power - all seem so disconnected from people's daily struggles.

Nevertheless, they are a great distraction from the rising food, energy and property prices, high consumer debt and budgetary cuts to government spending on health, welfare, education and infrastructure.

Naturally, the public is not stupid and is angrily disenfranchised by the self-serving rhetoric of political elites. This disillusionment with both major parties is swelling the ranks of (ultra)nationalist parties, as was seen in the recent Queensland election.

It was no surprise the recent offensive by Turnbull on a Labor MP (of an Iranian Muslim background) questioning his "allegiance" to Australia over his views on the South China Sea, and for seeking political donations from Chinese-born Australian businessmen, who allegedly appear to be promoting China's interests to influence our Australian democratic political process.

This political maneuver is not lost on the Australian public after a number of recent setbacks to the government. It makes perfect sense for Turnbull to go on the offensive to ensure his survival and achieve a number of political objectives. 

First, there is the need to deflect the Coalition's woes and wound their adversary by discrediting the ALP to counter their rise in the polls by smearing one of their rising stars - Sam Dastyari - as a greedy traitorous double agent promoting Chinese policy to get donations.

It is also a warning shot to the 70,000 residents born in the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong who were voting in the Bennelong by-election over the weekend, so they will be good citizens and toe the line.

In contrast, the ALP fielded the by-election with an American-born Australian to not only appeal to the conservative Bennelong electorate, but also to signal the ALP's firm allegiance to the Australia-US alliance that is "founded on shared values and bonds of friendship," which would help Labor's credentials with the Australian public and the US administration if they were to go on to win the next election.

There is nothing new about Turnbull's machinations to distract the populace with spectacle so as to influence the result of a by-election that would determine his own fate. It seems to parallel that of Trump's tough talk on North Korea, which subsided as soon as he won his prize - to pass the controversial tax cuts to the rich without much resistance in the Senate.

In Turnbull's case, it remains to be seen if the intensity of his war of words will subside soon after the Bennelong by-election which saw his party win, but with a swing to Labor.

The author is a senior lecturer, School of Accounting, Economics & Finance, University of Wollongong, Australia. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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