What a Biden presidency means for Australia

Joe Biden is the new President of the United States and while Donald Trump kept on claiming that the election November 2020 was ‘rigged’ and he would continue in the position of President, there was never any doubt at all Biden was going to inaugurated on 21 January 2021.

Trump was one of the worst presidents to ever sit in the Oval Office and his exist signifies the end of a chaotic four years where the United States became a diminished player on the world stage, ceded political power to China, and developed a very unstable political culture domestically.

Generally, when politics changes in the United States, there is an influence felt all over the world, although that a change of presidency over to the Democrats doesn’t mean the United States won’t be involved in wars all around the world, cease its arms trade to unsavoury dictators or stop acting in a way that is totally in the interests of the United States.

But there will be a wide range of changes coming soon: a fresh look at climate change issues; restructuring economies; government having a greater role in the provision of health and social services and greater intervention in the economy—and these factors will have influence within domestic Australian politics.

Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, with US President, Donald Trump, in Ohio.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison became too close to Trump, appearing on stage during one of Trump’s election rallies in Ohio during 2019; refusing to call him out during the insurrection event on Capitol Hill on 6 January, even though most other world leaders strongly condemned Trump, a lame duck leader during the last week of his presidency, and on the way out of office.

Morrison seems to have lost a personal friend in the White House, and there is a new President diametrically opposite to Trump and, ideologically, quite different to the Prime Minister. What could a Biden presidency mean for Australia?

The power of personal friendship between world leaders shouldn’t be overestimated: while it’s essential for leaders to maintain cordial relationships, countries will always act in their self-interest, their primary concern is always going to be towards their own citizens. In 1966, Liberal Party minister, Paul Hasluck, did warn the Prime Minister at the time, Harold Holt, that just because he had a good personal relationship with US President Lyndon Johnson, it didn’t mean the United States would stop acting in its own interests, even if that meant overriding matters which were in Australia’s interests, and this is a lesson that should be observed now.

It seems the United States government is going to start flexing its international muscle again with the instalment of Biden, after the four wasted years of the Trump administration, and the fact some Republicans have shown their willingness to work with the Biden administration doesn’t bode well for Australia. Of course, there are other Republicans who will continue to be stalwarts and show loyalty to Trump, such as Lauren Boebert, who can’t understand why she shouldn’t be allowed to carry a gun into Congress, or the conspiracy theorist, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who will attempt to cause as many problems as possible for the Democrats. But with Trump out of office, there people are now marginal figures.

Morrison overplayed his hand with Trump through his unqualified support for him. Perhaps this plays into the soft cultivation of QAnon supporters and related conspiracy theorists in Australia, in the same way former Prime Minister John Howard attracted support from One Nation voters, by not admonishing Pauline Hanson when she first arrived on the political scene in the last 1990s. There are similar enablers in the Liberal and National parties—Craig Kelly, George Christensen, for example—and it’s evident these players in Australia and the United States perform their political games to play up to their respective domestic audiences.

But it also has to be remembered Australia is not a big player on the world stage—while it is rated at number 15 in the list of world economies according to GDP, it only comprises 0.3 per cent of the world’s population: Australia does have some influence in world politics but it’s not so great. Having a good relationship with the President of the United States might result in a state dinner—as it did with Morrison in 2019—which, in turn, results in great media opportunities, or an invitation to visit Australia which, of course, results in more media and photo-opportunities. Trump is no longer the US President and Morrison’s appearances with Trump in Ohio would have been noted by the new Biden administration, but it’s difficult to know what difference this will make.

Personal relationships might make a marginal difference. For example, two similar potential trade deals on the table with the United States: one with Australia, the other with Kazakhstan. If the US President has a close relationship with the Australian Prime Minister, and they’ve had no dealings or interactions at all with the Kazak President, that might help swing the deal towards Australia. However, that would probably be more because of the defence ties the United States has with Australia, rather than any personal relationship and, ultimately, how the geopolitical and economic interests of the United States are best served.

There has also been speculation about the climate change policies the Biden administration will be seeking to implement, including a trade tariff with those countries not fulfilling their climate change obligations or without adequate targets to reduce carbon emissions by the year 2050.

And if such a tariff was ever implemented, Australia would be greatly affected, and to a far greater effect when compared to the recent tariffs imposed by the Chinese government, in response to Morrison’s belligerent approach to targeting China over the outbreak of the coronavirus. An ally of Australia implementing a policy that will be far more destructive to the Australian economy, than a retaliatory action by the Chinese government: that’s the nature of geopolitics and it seems Morrison was caught out when he was happy to join Trump’s trade war with China. He didn’t have an eye on the future.

The underreported insurrection

The word “insurrection” is not often used in American politics but that’s exactly what occurred at Capitol Hill on 6 January, and it was akin to the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Scores of people attacking a national parliament, especially a powerful ally such as the United States, is a large news story, but it seemed to be somewhat underreported in the Australian media. Of course, it happened in a foreign country, so it’s not typically within the purview of the Australian media and, as severe as the event was—five people died and 140 were injured—it could have been far worse.

Global media quickly labelled the event as an insurrection but the ABC hesitated and imposed an editorial ban on the word, with the ABC’s editorial policy manager Mark Maley claiming that “the term is disputed and it is not established as fact that what happened fits the definition of insurrection”. The ban was lifted several days later, before ‘insurrection’ mysteriously disappeared from its reportage.

It’s unclear what role the Minister for Communications, Paul Fletcher, played in this process but it provided yet another example where the ABC was keen not to offend its key stakeholder, the federal government. But it also flowed through to other media outlets: most Australian mainstream media held perfunctory reporting, but it showed a lack of curiosity about a major event in the United States, and one which could have been significantly worse.

The rioters brought the Confederate flag into the Capitol building: it would be like running the flag of the Nazis through Westminister in Britain, or the imperial Japanese war flag through Parliament House in Canberra. The rioters were also looking for members of Congress and the House of Representatives, possibly to murder them on the spot by lynching or firing squad—several of the rioters has zip ties which were clearly going to be used to bind and restrain parliamentarians.

The Democrat representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, made some disturbing suggestions about what happened to her during the insurrection, in which she narrowly managed to avoid serious injury. A policeman was beaten to death, by the same people who were championing ‘blue lives matter’, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement: another woman was shot; and several others died afterwards from their injuries. The major factor that saved Capitol Hill from further violence was that extremist groups of this nature are a disparate group of complainers and not very competent in organisation.

Perhaps this was the redeeming feature of the insurrection: incompetence removed the possibility of the event becoming the worst disaster in United States’ history.

Change in Australia? Not likely

The influence of American politics around the world can be significant, and the United States still has the largest economy and the most powerful military in the world, albeit not the largest. There have been some suggestions in Australia that a change in government in the United States will usher in changes in government at the next federal election, but there is rarely a relationship between changes of government in either country: there will be policy influences, such as economic factors and climate change issues, which could make an impact upon Australia’s federal government, but that’s where the influence will end.

It has to be remembered that the era of the Labor government during 1983–96 largely coincided with the Reagan–Bush Republican era between 1981–93. The Liberal–National coalition’s time in office between 1996–2007 commenced at second half of the Clinton administration between 1993–2001: just because there’s a different government on the other side of the Pacific Ocean doesn’t mean a change of government is on the horizon in Australia.

But policy influences are the key factors: the Hawke–Keating government, in particularly in economics, was closer to the governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher than they were to the Whitlam government: the Howard government, economically, was closer to the Clinton style of economics than the Fraser or Menzies governments.

The changes that arise won’t come through in the sense of a change in government, but more in ideological terms, where incumbent parties adjust to meet the ideology of the prevailing zeitgeist. Will this mean that Australia will move to the left to follow the movement in the United States? It’s unlikely but, eventually, Morrison may find that he won’t have a choice.

For any changes of substance do occur in Indigenous affairs, it will need to wait for a change of government. It’s obvious that Morrison is a man of privilege and has no intention making an essential change if there are no votes to be found for him.

Both need to be looking over their shoulder, but for different reasons. It’s going to be an exciting year and, with the possibility of a federal election, it’s going to be a very interesting one.


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About Eddy Jokovich and David Lewis 3 Articles
Eddy Jokovich and David Lewis are the presenters of the New Politics podcast.