Is Morrison ready for a Biden administration?

At the height of the United States presidential election in 2016, then-Foreign Minister Julie Bishop instructed her mandarins to prepare two briefs: one for a Clinton win and one for a Trump win.

There was pushback from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, with even its traditionally thorough and uber-cautious officials seemingly of the view that Clinton would easily prevail.

Scott Morrison discussed climate change and emissions reduction with US President-elect Joe Biden in their call shortly after the election.Credit:AP

That was not the message Bishop had been receiving on her trips to the US that year, and she insisted the briefs be prepared “equally”.

While things looked rushed from the outside – with Canberra’s then-ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, famously needing to request a phone number for Donald Trump from Australian golfer Greg Norman on the night of the election – the preparation had been going on for months.

The move allowed Bishop, Hockey and other senior diplomats to begin reaching out to key figures in the Trump camp immediately after his win on November 8, 2016.

"That, I think, was a wise move because when Trump was elected president we were very well prepared in terms of the likely appointees and the people who would take roles," Bishop says.

For a number of reasons, Bishop’s successor, Marise Payne, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have not been able, and have not needed, to move as fast in touching base with the incoming administration. According to DFAT sources with knowledge of the transition, Payne has not been in contact with any senior figures in President-elect Joe Biden’s camp since November’s election.

Four years after the Trump transition team came under scrutiny for its dealings with Russian officials, the Biden transition team has been keen to keep its distance from foreign governments until the inauguration.

But with many of Biden’s top national security appointees former members of the Obama administration, Australian government officials don’t feel as though they're starting from scratch this time.

“The Morrison government is dealing with a different scenario. They have a sitting president but also a president-elect who is very well known to the Australian government through the Obama administration,” Bishop says. “We were dealing with a different scenario from the outset because the election was between two potential candidates, not a sitting president and a former vice-president as candidate."

Outside of Scott Morrison appearing with Donald Trump at what was in effect a campaign rally in Ohio, even Morrison’s harshest critics have struggled to credibly find fault with how he or predecessor Malcolm Turnbull managed the relationship.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But the Morrison government has created a perception over recent weeks it is being slow to move on from the Trump era.

While Morrison joined other world leaders in condemning the storming of the US Capitol, he stopped short of following British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in directly criticising Trump for inciting the violence. “It is not for me to offer commentary on world leaders,” he said.

Then-defence minister Marise Payne with foreign minister Julie Bishop and ambassador to the US Kim Beazley meeting with Tony Blinken in Washington in 2015.

Canberra was particularly pleased with the appointment last week of Kurt Campbell, one of the most influential minds on Asia in Washington and a friend of Australia, as Biden’s “Indo-­Pacific co-ordinator”.

Senior officials in the Australian government, including Payne’s chief of staff, Justin Bassi, and Office of National Intelligence director-general Andrew Shearer, are also known to be close to some of these figures.

In his congratulatory call with Biden in November, Morrison invited the President-elect to Australia in 2021 to mark the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS treaty. Biden is likely to accept the invitation, with preliminary talks already under way, according to senior Australian government sources.

For all his talk of visiting Australia, Trump never came in his four years in office.

Richardson says it is difficult for the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to reach out to Biden's team during the transition period.

“Unless you knew Tony Blinken personally and had personal dealings with him over a long period of time … you would not be able to just ring him up and start chatting,” he says.

“He wouldn’t do it because officials of incoming administrations who are subject to Senate confirmation are very sensitive to anything that could be seen by the Senate as taking the confirmation process for granted.

“You can’t look back to Hockey and the Trump administration because the Trump administration was unconventional in its approach to the 2016 election.”

Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Australia-United States of America, says Australia should be first in the door with any incoming US administration “because of the alliance, and indeed, our friendship”.

“Our neighbours in the Indo-Pacific region need Australia and the United States to be trusted allies, not only on issues of national security, but also non-state security threats, including health challenges such as the response to coronavirus, and climate change,” she says.

United States Studies Centre chief executive Simon Jackman says there is already a significant amount of dialogue between the Biden camp and Australian officials, as well as the think tank community.

He says a big test for how much the Biden administration values the Australia relationship will be how quickly it moves to appoint a new ambassador in Canberra.

“On the big-picture stuff, there is so much alignment on the strategic priorities in the region and the roles of the respective countries,” Jackman says.

“Having the ambassador here helps with keeping that prominent in the American government. A well-placed political appointee as ambassador is really important at this time.”

Where there could be conflict

Trump was close to a few world leaders – particularly Morrison, Johnson, India's Narendra Modi and former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe – but his alliances in Europe and NATO were left in tatters.

Morrison will be competing with all the leaders of Europe to get the ear of the new president, who has always been a staunch transatlanticist.

Climate change could also be an area where Australia is isolated, with Morrison last month left off the speakers list of a United Nations summit on climate change organised by Johnson.

Biden has highlighted climate action as one of his four top priorities, naming former secretary of state John Kerry as a special presidential envoy.

Jackman says Biden now has the opportunity to pass a significant policy on climate change after the Democrats won both houses of Congress.

“Before it became apparent that the Democrats had the Senate, there was a sense that some of the issues that might be awkward for the Australian government – particularly on climate change – would not come to pass. That’s less the case now,” he says.

Trade-offs with China?

There is always a fear within Canberra that the US could trade off measures to rein in China in return for a grand climate change agreement.

But this is less of a risk under Biden and his key national security appointees than it was with Obama.

In a seminal essay for Foreign Affairs magazine in 2019, Campbell and Sullivan discarded the more optimistic assumptions that underpinned the four-decade-long strategy of diplomatic and economic engagement with China, accepting the US was now in competition with Beijing.

The two key Biden appointees also ruled out the prospect of any kind of "grand bargain" with China, saying it would require "stark and permanent US concessions" including the abrogation of American alliances "or even of the right to operate in the western Pacific, for speculative promises".

They embraced a policy of “competition and co-operation” with China and said the US “needs to get back to seeing alliances as assets to be invested in rather than costs to be cut”.

This sounds like something a lot closer to Australia's foreign policy than Trump’s approach.

Australia just needs to convince the US to stay the course.

Trump Biden 2020

Understand the election result and its aftermath with expert analysis from US correspondent Matthew Knott. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald‘s newsletter here, The Age‘s here, Brisbane Times‘ here and WAtoday‘s here. 

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