On the eve of ANZUS turning 70 on Wednesday, Scott Morrison was asked whether he had spoken to US President Joe Biden since the fall of Kabul.
“No, I haven’t as yet. I anticipate doing that not too far away,” he said on Queensland radio.
When it was put to him that the lack of contact, plus the US not providing Australia with spare doses of the Pfizer vaccine, suggested Australia was “on the nose” with the president, Morrison quickly protested.
“No, not at all. I mean, I mean, I just don’t agree with that. I’ve been dealing with the United States on many issues and we continue to do that. And, you know, I’m not precious about these things. I just focus on getting the job done.”
Presumably he expects a phone conversation to mark the ANZUS anniversary. It would be strange if there wasn’t one.
Regardless of when the call comes, it is notable that many months into the Biden presidency, it remains unclear precisely how the relationship between the two leaders lies. The coming months will throw some light on it.
In relation to the Kabul evacuation, the government would point to the discussions between Foreign Minister Marise Payne and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
But Australia is an ally joined at the hip with America, and its soldiers served in Afghanistan for the best part of two decades, which would make some leader-level contact to have been expected during the evacuation. Moreover, Morrison and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke then.
The Australia-US relationship doesn’t depend on the personal rapport between the leaders of the two countries at any particular time. The alliance is driven by shared national interests.
Nevertheless, personalities can be important. This was never more evident than with the Bush-Howard bond at the start of the Afghanistan war – especially tight because John Howard was in Washington when the terrorist attacks occurred on September 11, 2001.
The opportunity to “eyeball” can be central in developing a relationship and Morrison and Biden have had minimal eyeball time.
So far, there has only been that three-way meeting (US, Australia, UK) when Morrison attended the G7 summit in June. It seems there wasn’t time for an additional bilateral session. Given a choice, one would have thought Morrison would have been better off meeting just with Biden, whom he didn’t know personally.
Why is Morrison not further forward in the foreign queue for presidential attention?
Possibly it’s a matter of all the other demands on the president. Biden is overwhelmed with domestic and foreign problems; he looks less than robust and no doubt his team limits what he has to do. The attitude might be that Australia would understand if it’s sometimes taken for granted.
In the past, Australia wasn’t a country high in Biden’s consciousness. For example, it’s a tradition for the US vice president to receive visiting Australian foreign and defence ministers, but when Biden was vice president under Barack Obama it was initially quite difficult for Australian officials to make this happen.
Possibly the Biden administration remembers how cosy (albeit for pragmatic reasons) Morrison was with Donald Trump, including the unfortunate occasion when a joint appearance had all the hallmarks of a Trump rally.
Possibly the president and those around him are frustrated with the Coalition’s tardiness in signing up to a more ambitious climate change agenda.
Perhaps it is an amalgam of all these things.
Work is currently underway for a meeting in the US of leaders of the Quad security grouping – the US, Australia, India and Japan – in late September or early October.
If the meeting is in person, Morrison intends to go, despite the difficulties of the domestic COVID situation. This would provide the opportunity for bilateral discussions with Biden.
A major topic of the bilateral talks would be Australia’s position on climate change, ahead of the November climate conference in Glasgow.
Whether Morrison will be able to embrace the net-zero 2050 target is still unknown, dependent on the divided and shambolic Nationals. Biden would want that and more.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday Morrison will take part in a small ceremony at the Australian-American Memorial in Canberra, and address parliament on ANZUS. He’d hope to say he’d spoken to the president by then.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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