Public servants getting on with it in relation to China

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday December 9, 2020



Just two weeks ago Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserted that while it is not the job of the Australian Public Service to mend Australia’s relationship with China, federal bureaucrats are expected to continue to engage with their Chinese counterparts “as they always have”.

Relations have managed to hit a new low even since then, and despite Morrison telling the APS200 that public servants “are not burdened with the overlays of international relations in the same way ministers or prime ministers are”, the events of 2020 tell a different story.

Just over a week ago, Chinese official Zhao Lijian tweeted a stylised image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child. Morrison was quick to demand an apology over the picture, describing it as “repugnant” and “deeply offensive”.

“It is utterly outrageous and cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever, the Chinese Government should be totally ashamed of this post,” he said.

Earlier this week foreign affairs shadow minister Penny Wong questioned the implications of Morrison’s speedy response to the tweet.

“In diplomacy you always have to think about how you calibrate your response,” she said.

“I hope that he took advice and thought carefully before he did escalate it to the national leader level when we responded.”

A senior APS source recently told The Mandarin that comments like Morrison’s can make it harder for public servants to do their job.

“We are the ones who have to deal with our Chinese counterparts on a daily basis on some very sensitive and difficult issues. Outbursts like these cause a withdrawal of engagement on some levels,” they said.

Another official simply said the PM was “doing his job and we are doing ours”.

“Sometimes it seems we’re not on the same page, but that’s the task of the bureaucracy — to get on with it despite what’s happening in the media and public spheres.”

Read more: When it comes to China, the public sector has to pick up the pieces

And get on with it the APS has. The fallout of the deteriorating Sino-Australian relationship has led to numerous challenges, including trade action against Australian exports. Just this week China hit the sixth Australian beef supplier this year with an import ban.

As detailed in Mandarin Premium yesterday, it has been the enormous job of public servants from across various departments to overcome these challenges.

Most recently, the government set up a new Foreign Arrangements Taskforce within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to implement the government’s controversial foreign relations legislation, which was passed on Tuesday.

The laws give foreign affairs minister Marise Payne the power to veto agreements that other jurisdictions and universities have made with foreign governments, namely the Victorian government’s Belt and Road Initiative deal with China.

No burden on APS?

Back in April, the government saw a prime example of how the burden of poor political relations can fall on the public service.

Morrison, Payne, and home affairs minister Peter Dutton had all called for an independent global inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, urging transparency from the Chinese government.

DFAT secretary Frances Adamson phoned the Chinese ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye in an attempt to ease tensions, after Cheng warned that Morrison’s push for the inquiry could lead to a boycott from the people of China.

But Adamson’s efforts were to no avail. The Chinese ambassador extraordinarily broke convention by leaking details of the conversation in a media statement, saying that Adamson had “tried her best to defend Australia’s proposal about the independent review”.

DFAT was not impressed. It released a statement acknowledging the ambassador’s actions and noting that the department would “not respond by itself breaching the long standing diplomatic courtesies and professional practices to which it will continue to adhere”.

Since then, figures including former ambassador to China Geoff Raby, former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson, and ex PM Kevin Rudd have suggested that while an inquiry is necessary, Australia should have sought support from other countries before making the announcement.

Read more: Former Ambassador calls for ‘massive investment’ in diplomacy amid spiralling China relations

Adamson has remained firm when speaking publicly about China in the months since the phone call.

In a September interview with The Australian, Adamson said the commonwealth “won’t tolerate” interference. A former ambassador to China, she told the publication that while her “response has had to adjust”, she has remained “clear-eyed” about the current situation.

“You don’t jump at shadows, you don’t do things that you don’t need to do, but when there is a direct challenge, you need to take action to counter it,” she said.

The secretary gave China another subtle warning in a speech to the ANU National Security College last month:

“China may have reached a point where it believes that it can largely set the terms of its future engagement with the world. If it has, I believe it is mistaken – and that is because there is far more to be gained for China, and for everyone else, through working constructively and collaboratively within the international system, without resort to pressure or coercion.”

Going forward, the government should take the advice of its public servants in order overcome the tensions with China, according to Senator Wong.

“We would hope that the prime minister listens more carefully to the government’s experts in the public service – and also displays more consistent, disciplined and strategic leadership in Australia’s foreign relations,” she told The Mandarin.

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