Australia’s foreign minister has accused China of spreading disinformation that “contributes to a climate of fear and division” while declaring Canberra would take a more active role in global bodies.
Marise Payne used a major foreign policy address in Canberra on Tuesday to reveal the government’s long-awaited response to the audit ordered by Scott Morrison last year when the prime minister warned against “negative globalism”.
Far from heralding a retreat from United Nations bodies that are pilloried by some conservatives in the Coalition, the review reaffirmed the vital importance of international cooperation.
In a warning against isolationism, Payne said Australia’s interests would not be served by retreating from global bodies and “leaving others to shape the global order for us”.
While calling for reform to ensure UN bodies are “fit for purpose” and “free from undue influence”, Payne signalled that Australia would actively pursue “effective multilateralism”.
Payne devoted a portion of her speech to disinformation – a challenge she said was highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic, when false information had the potential to cost lives.
She called for global institutions like the World Health Organisation to “serve as bulwarks against disinformation” and said it was “troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy and promote their own, more authoritarian models”.
Amid current tensions with Beijing stemming from Australia’s pursuit of an independent international investigation into the Covid-19 origins and response, Payne said Australia had been “very clear in rejecting as disinformation the Chinese government’s warnings that tourists and students should reconsider coming here because of the risk of racism”.
Payne said Australia would welcome students and visitors from all over the world, regardless of race, gender or nationality, with law enforcement agencies responding to individual crimes. She said the prime minister had “repeatedly called out racist behaviour” and had thanked the Chinese-Australians who returned from China in the early period of Covid-19 for their cooperation in preventing the spread of the virus.
“The disinformation we have seen contributes to a climate of fear and division when what we need is cooperation and understanding,” she told an audience at the Australian National University.
Payne pointed to last week’s report issued by the European Commission that concluded Russia and China had carried out targeted disinformation campaigns “seeking to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation”.
She said Twitter had disclosed the following day that more than 32,000 accounts had been identified as state-linked information operations which the company attributed to China, Russia and Turkey.
Australia would resist and counter efforts at disinformation, Payne said, “through facts and transparency, underpinned by liberal democratic values that we will continue to promote at home and abroad”.
Despite the fallout – which have included China imposing tariffs on Australian barley and meat imports – Payne indicated she did not regret the forthright role that Australia played in pushing for an international coronavirus inquiry.
She said Australia’s actions were “a perfect demonstration of what Australia is about in 2020 – playing an active role, exerting our influence and using our capacity in alignment with our values, while being consistent, clear and transparent about our objectives”.
“There were those who said that, by speaking out on the need for a review, we made ourselves a target and brought upon ourselves an unnecessary cost for a cause that would have been championed anyway by others whose size and stature made them more suitable standard-bearers,” she said.
“By all means, we can be small in our thinking, timid in purpose and risk averse. Alternatively, and in my view vitally necessary, we can be confident, believe in Australia’s role in the world and prioritise Australia’s sovereignty – and Australians’ long term interests – by making the difficult decisions and choices. That’s what leading and governing must be about.”
Payne said Australia would target its efforts “to preserve three fundamental parts of the multilateral system”, including the rules that protect sovereignty, preserve peace and curb excessive use of power and enable international trade and investment.
The second priority would be the international standards related to health and pandemics, transport, telecommunications and other issues that underpin the global economy and which will be vital to a post-COVID-19 economic recovery;
The third priority, she said, was the norms that underpin universal human rights, gender equality and the rule of law.
Payne also flagged a greater effort to have Australians in leadership roles in global bodies, saying people with expertise, integrity and pragmatism were “needed now more than ever by the international community”.
The speech did not specify any changes to the funding Australia provides, although it does not rule out shifting or cutting funding. A government bill to replenish funding for a number of global bodies sailed through the Senate last week.
Morrison announced the Dfat-led review in his speech to the Lowy Institute last October when he warned against “a new variant of globalism that seeks to elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies”.
The prime minister argued at the time that Australia should avoid “any reflex towards a negative globalism that coercively seeks to impose a mandate from an often ill-defined borderless global community, and worse still, an unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy” – rhetoric that drew immediate comparisons with Donald Trump, who has retreated from multilateral bodies.