Inside Story

Quiet Australian

Marise Payne has much to contend with as foreign minister in the Morrison government

Hamish McDonald 29 July 2021 3291 words

Finest moment: Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, listening to foreign minister Marise Payne after last July’s AUSMIN meeting in Washington. Brendan Smialowski/Reuters

Foreign affairs has long been the portfolio where prime ministers park their vanquished or potential leadership rivals, allowing them to do important work and enjoy the limelight well away from the domestic political theatre: think Bill Hayden, Alexander Downer, Julie Bishop.

Some foreign ministers go on to be ennobled as governor-general: Richard Casey, Paul Hasluck and Hayden. But only one in living memory, William McMahon, sprang back from this political sidetrack into the prime ministership.

Present incumbent Marise Payne is notable for an absence of perceptible leadership ambition and what many say is an excessive aversion to the limelight. She is also part of a dwindling remnant of small-l liberals in the Liberal Party. Oddly, though, this has made her useful to Scott Morrison as he flounders around in gender and sexual violence issues. In March he made her chair of a new cabinet committee on the status of women, referring to her as “prime minister for women,” while making it clear he was still in charge.

Once, Payne had people wondering whether she had the makings of a prime minister. In 2001, four years into her first Senate term, clever, articulate and still only thirty-seven, she was asked by Radio National’s Terry Lane whether she would jump to the House of Representatives to advance her career. “The sort of Liberal Party that I would lead, I would hope would be a very inclusive Liberal Party,” she said, adding she was happy enough helping constituents sort out “issues and problems.” Just as well, for she was already on the outer in the Liberal Party.

She had been deputy to lawyer–financier Malcolm Turnbull during the Australian Republican Movement’s failed Yes campaign at the 1999 referendum, and had been upbraided by John Howard and Tony Abbott for this “conflict of interest.” As she observed ruefully at the Lowy Institute in 2018, “It may explain my extremely well-developed professional career as a backbencher in the Howard government.”

Further episodes didn’t endear her to Howard. As chair of the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee she declared one of his government’s proposed anti-terror laws “a very serious incursion into the way in which we currently expect to be able to live our lives in Australia.” Together with other Coalition moderates, she managed to have the legislation modified.

From her maiden speech in 1997 onwards she spoke of her concerns about refugees, the stolen generations, HIV sufferers and other minorities. Her foreign trips took her to places like Dili to observe the East Timorese independence referendum or Nepal to see Tibetans arriving across the Himalayas. As Norman Abjorensen noted in a 2008 profile for Inside Story, all of this meant her career under Howard was “a swim upstream.”

Howard embodied the hardline laissez-faire views of the Liberal Party’s NSW right, in the end going beyond the bounds of public acceptability with his WorkChoices legislation. Abjorensen contrasted this approach with Victoria’s Liberals, historically more secure and imbued with a certain noblesse oblige.

With members of the intolerant religious right stacking branches in New South Wales, Payne’s place on the Senate ticket was always under threat. She clung on in third place behind the right’s Helen Coonan and the top-ranked National. In a speech to the Sydney Institute in November 2008, the year after Howard’s defeat, she excoriated the party’s right for straying from the liberalism of Robert Menzies and showing “heartlessness” towards refugees.

Payne started to come in from the cold under opposition leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull, both moderate NSW Liberals, who awarded her junior shadow portfolios in Indigenous affairs and foreign aid. Then, with experienced and talented women, or any women at all, in short supply in the Coalition, Abbott gave her the thankless human services portfolio. Later in 2015, following Abbott’s ousting by Turnbull, she became defence minister.

In that job, she gained accolades for her performance in question time and committees, and for her engagement across party lines. “I’ve always been quite impressed with her,” says crossbench senator Rex Patrick. “She never seems to be rattled by questions. She always seems to be well briefed and prepared.”

Momentous decisions were made in the portfolio during her three years. Twelve French-designed submarines were ordered, at a cost initially put at $50 billion (the troubled project is now expected to cost $90 billion), with an extra $10 billion to keep the six existing Collins-class submarines operating until they arrive. Nine British frigates, also still on the drawing board, were ordered at a cost of $35 billion, now blown out to $45 billion.

Few defence analysts believe Payne guided these decisions or questioned the advice leading to them. To critics like Patrick, a former submariner, it was a case of defence chiefs with little project experience selling a grand leap into the future to politicians with even less grasp of technology, warfare and industry. “I would say Payne presided over a number of decisions, particularly in naval shipbuilding, that will haunt Australia for years to come,” says Patrick, who adds that she should have picked up on very early signs that the French submarine deal was not going well.

In his memoir, A Bigger Picture, Turnbull mentions working with Payne on the 2016 defence white paper, though he details only his own interventions in the drafting. She was a “calm, knowledgeable and considered” minister, he writes. “But she lacked confidence in her own considerable ability and wouldn’t get out enough in the media to promote our Defence Industry Plan, which is why I later appointed Christopher Pyne minister for Defence Industry.”

Morrison’s dethroning of Turnbull in August 2018 saw Julie Bishop exit cabinet and later parliament. Needing another woman in his senior ranks, Morrison appointed Linda Reynolds, a major-general in the Army Reserve, as defence minister and made Payne foreign affairs minister.

Payne was hardly his cup of tea. Morrison had been the party’s NSW state director during the years she was stuck on the backbench and at risk of losing nomination. But she was a safe pair of hands who had kept any objections to refugee policy to herself since becoming a minister.

The contrast between Payne and her predecessor could hardly be greater. Bishop’s high-profile travels, lycra-clad early-morning jogs, daring haute couture and Paspaley pearls helped keep her in the public eye. Eight years older than Payne, she had once practised as a barrister (Payne had been a political staffer) and was well suited to the prosecutorial role she assumed after the downing of a Malaysian airliner by Russian-backed Ukrainian forces.

Far from the VIP tent, Payne remains a somewhat reclusive figure anchored in the middle and outer suburbs of Sydney, where she grew up as the daughter of an accountant. After attending Methodist Ladies College, she joined the Liberal Club at the University of NSW, aged seventeen, having just started her arts–law degrees. She has said the Liberals were the “natural choice” for her. These days, with her electorate office in Parramatta, she calls herself “senator for Western Sydney” rather than the constitutionally correct senator for New South Wales. Her home is in the Penrith state electorate of her partner since 2007, Stuart Ayres, a minister in Gladys Berejiklian’s state government.

From the outset, it was clear that a large part of her current job would involve cleaning up after her leader. During a by-election caused by Turnbull’s resignation from parliament, Morrison decided to try to appeal to the large Jewish population in the Wentworth electorate by announcing Australia would follow Donald Trump’s example and transfer its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Protests erupted in Indonesia and Malaysia, and farm exporters got worried. With backing from Payne’s department, the government called in senior foreign policy and trade figures — former ASIO and defence department head Dennis Richardson, former foreign affairs department head Michael L’Estrange, former defence force head Angus Houston, former prime minister’s department head Michael Thawley, and former Nationals leader John Anderson — to advise. All but Thawley said the move was a bad idea. In the end, a compromise statement said the move would be to “West Jerusalem,” not the united city claimed by Israel, and wouldn’t take place (except for a defence and trade office) until a settlement was reached with the Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as their capital. “We ended up with the extraordinary formula which is exactly the same as Vladimir Putin’s,” says one retired diplomat.

A year later, in October 2019, Morrison went down another Trumpian pathway. “We can never answer to a higher authority than the people of Australia,” Morrison told a Lowy Institute dinner. “We 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.” He ordered Payne to do an “audit” of Australia’s membership of international bodies.

Her department complied according to the classic Yes, Prime Minister script. As Payne told ANU’s National Security College in June last year, it found that the hundred or so international agencies were “extremely important for Australia in terms of advancing our national interests and promoting and protecting our values.” She thanked Morrison for guiding her department to this conclusion. “We couldn’t have made that assessment without the multilateral audit.”

Beyond these defensive moves, Payne is not getting many plaudits. She is perceived by some as lacking energy and visibility, both in dealing with the world outside and in explaining the world to Australians. But figures in foreign policy circles are reluctant to talk about her on the record: they tend to admire her personally and think she has a hard row to hoe in this government, and they have contact with her in various forums.

“She does no harm, but she doesn’t do much good,” says one veteran of the Canberra political scene. “She has good instincts and a lot to offer but has she really pulled the government in a positive direction on very much?” asks an international relations academic influential in foreign policy circles. “Probably not.” The academic thinks that Penny Wong, her opposite number in Labor, would have made a bigger splash outside Australia and got the Australian public more engaged on international issues, had the 2019 election gone the other way.

As an example of actual harm, many point to Payne’s call in April last year for an “independent” inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. Under questioning from David Speers on ABC’s Insiders she suggested China had not been fully transparent and questioned whether the World Health Organization was the right body to carry out such an inquiry, given this would be “a bit poacher and gamekeeper.”

She was veering into Trumpland, and Morrison made it worse two days later by declaring the investigators would need “weapons inspector” powers.

Relations with Beijing were already heading south. As the eminent former Fairfax editor Max Suich wrote in a powerful analysis in the Australian Financial Review in May, two of Canberra’s most powerful figures, names undisclosed, told a closed-door Lowy panel in September 2017 that Chinese interference needed to be confronted. Turnbull was already preparing the foreign interference laws he would present to parliament that December with the declaration, in bad Mandarin, that Australia was “standing up” — a cheap take on Mao Zedong’s declaration of the People’s Republic in 1949. He soon announced that Huawei would be excluded from Australia’s 5G mobile network, and began urging other security partners to follow suit.

In other words, getting “out in front” of Australia’s allies, as Suich put it, in “calling out” and “pushing back” against Chinese interference and infiltration, began well before Morrison, though he continued and intensified it. The bill came in over the following months, with China blocking some $20 billion in imports from Australia on various pretexts. An international Covid inquiry did get launched in September, on European initiative and under WHO auspices, with both China and Australia voting in favour.

It was an own goal for Payne and Morrison. “She ended up holding the can for the Covid inquiry and I have no idea where it came from,” says the international relations scholar. “Was she ordered to do it, or did she actually want to do it? But that was a diplomacy fail from my perspective. We could have achieved the same objective without what became the consequences. That is what diplomacy is about: finding intelligent ways to negotiate or persuade, to get what you want, without the negative consequence.”

Three months after her inquiry call came Payne’s finest hour as foreign minister. More blunt than diplomatic, it recalled the Love Actually moment when Hugh Grant’s British prime minister rebuffs a sleazy US president. She was in the United States with defence minister Reynolds for the annual AUSMIN talks with their American counterparts, a week after US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had made a speech overturning decades of policy by declaring the Chinese Communist Party’s rule illegitimate.

Payne pointedly refused to back Pompeo’s call for allies to help roll back communism in China. “The secretary’s positions are his own,” she said at a joint press conference, standing beside Pompeo. “Australia’s position is our own.”

Back in Australia, Morrison continued to spring surprises. Anxious for a free-trade agreement with Britain post-Brexit, he agreed to Boris Johnson’s request that British working holiday-makers be exempted from the eighty-eight-day farm labour requirement to renew their visas. Then, to cover up the resulting fall in numbers in this highly exploitable group, he hastily agreed to a long-rejected push by the Nationals and the farm lobby for a new agricultural work visa for Southeast Asians, a recipe for future scandals affecting vital foreign relationships. As with the Jerusalem announcement, there was no sign of prior consultation with the foreign affairs minister.

If Payne has used her parliamentary seniority and rank in cabinet to push back on asylum seekers and other policies she finds too harsh, most outside observers can see little sign of it. The exception is an attempt, ahead of a feared Taliban return to power in Kabul, to persuade Home Affairs to grant asylum faster and less unwillingly to Afghans who worked with Australian forces and agencies. She was also said to be against the early withdrawal of Australia’s embassy.

Her efforts to support Australians in trouble are also noted. Freeing the Melbourne University academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert from jail in Iran last November required a complicated deal worked out by former ASIS chief Nick Warner, one-time ambassador in Tehran. He arranged for Moore-Gilbert to be exchanged for three convicted Iranian terrorists being held in jail in Bangkok, rewarding Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha with a new “strategic partnership” with Australia — much-appreciated Western support for a military-backed leader who was vigorously suppressing anti-royalist demonstrators. Her concern for Sean Turnell, the jailed economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, is one reason she is holding off applying sanctions to the coup leaders in Myanmar.

On deeper policy, though, she is quite isolated, with Simon Birmingham the only other notable moderate in a cabinet stacked with punitive hard-right figures like former home affairs and now defence minister Peter Dutton and immigration minister Alex Hawke, who once worked for NSW religious-right powerbroker David Clarke.

This April she travelled to Wellington in a successful attempt to persuade her counterpart, Nanaia Mahuta, that New Zealand should stand closer to Australia in facing China. The NZ trade minister had earlier suggested Canberra try more “diplomacy,” and Mahuta questioned whether the Five Eyes intelligence pact was the right forum for a broader meeting of minds on the rise of China.

On this issue, Payne seems to have had little help from the punishers in the cabinet. The deportation of New Zealanders after even a one-year jail term has seen people raised from infancy in Australia (some of them steeped in Australian bikie culture and other criminal networks) dumped in their country of birth. Initiated by Morrison when he was immigration minister and ramped up by Dutton — who calls it “taking out the trash” — these “section 501” deportations have badly frayed the trans-Tasman relationship. To them have been added increasing numbers of “section 116” deportations, which require no criminal conviction at all but simply what one official calls the “I don’t like the look of you test.”

“To be fair, it’s a long-term problem, not Payne’s,” says the international relations academic. “Foreign ministers haven’t done enough to put their perspective strongly, to win the arguments in cabinet, to protect their department and make sure it’s funded properly. Foreign Affairs and Trade has continuously lost those arguments — the influence arguments, the funding. It just doesn’t have anything like the influence it used to have. You might ask: is that the minister’s fault or is the minister’s lack of influence a symptom of that?”

This is a shame, the academic adds, “because if you look at Marise’s parliamentary career there is just so much to like here. She is someone who genuinely believes in human rights and democratic processes, the machinery of good government. God, she stands out in the current government!”

Could anyone else have done any better? Probably not Julie Bishop. She was humiliated by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi early in her tenure, after Canberra protested against China’s declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea, and spent her last two and a half years as foreign minister frozen out of Beijing. By May 2018, Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador in Beijing, was writing that Turnbull “needs to replace the foreign minister with someone better equipped for the demands of the job.”

“If it was someone who had the most conceivable amount of heft in the cabinet, the domestic and international connections, would he or she have done better than Payne has done in the time she’s had?” the academic asks, providing the answer: probably not, under Morrison. “In which case she’s doing her best in a situation where there’s very little room for her to do more.”

The recent departure of her departmental secretary Frances Adamson for the SA governorship raises new questions. Will the loss of this career-long China specialist further weaken the department’s already diminished voice and further worsen relations with China? “I wonder how much of what’s happened in Foreign Affairs is a result of Frances Adamson,” says Rex Patrick. “We’ll only find that out as Kathryn Campbell takes over.”

Campbell, a major-general in the Army Reserve, is the new Foreign Affairs secretary. As secretary of Social Services, she carried the can for the robodebt scandal, but she has no discernible foreign experience beyond a brief attachment to a Middle East army base. Though Payne is said to have got on well with her as human services minister, it is unclear whose choice she is and what was Morrison’s purpose in appointing, or agreeing to appoint, her. Some have seen it as further “militarisation” of foreign policy. Conversely, Campbell might have the bureaucratic infighting skills to take on the security establishment.

Will Payne still be there to benefit? Many of the remaining moderates in the Liberal Party headed for the exit at the 2019 election, not attracted by the opposition benches or more time in a Morrison government. Sometime in the next ten months, Payne’s own place in the Senate will be up for election. She must be pondering whether to give up on the party she joined as a teenage girl or, as Menzies used to say, “keep kicking against the pricks.” •