Prime Minister Scott Morrison has dug quite the hole for himself.
Mr Morrison is at the ASEAN Summit in Singapore today, where he will meet with leaders from a bunch of Australia’s allies. One of those allies is Indonesia.
It will be the first time the Prime Minister has met with President Joko Widodo since he announced Australia would consider moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, and an enthusiastic supporter of the Palestinians. It is furious about the move, and has delayed signing a landmark free trade deal with Australia while the issue remains up in the air.
Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita has publicly confirmed there will be no deal as long as Mr Morrison is still considering moving the embassy.
“It can be signed any time, but when you will sign it depends on Australia’s position (on the embassy),” he told Indonesian media yesterday.
So the Government now faces what seems to be an impossible dilemma — back down on the embassy move and lose face, or risk scuttling the trade deal.
Some members of the Government are urging Mr Morrison not to back down.
“Our foreign policy should not be dictated to by other countries,” Senator Eric Abetz told Sky News this morning.
“A country, with respect, like Indonesia, which does recognise Israel. It does not have an embassy there. Up until recently it did not even recognise Israeli passports.
“So in those circumstances, I think Australia is right to forge its own foreign policy.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told the network the embassy move and the free trade agreement were “not mutually exclusive”.
“Indonesia says they are,” host Laura Jayes shot back.
Her co-host Kieran Gilbert delivered a withering assessment of the situation, saying it was the Prime Minister’s own fault.
“It’s all of his own making,” Gilbert said.
“He’s the one who raised this thought bubble.
“It came out of nowhere, it was all about their efforts for the Wentworth by-election. It’s backfired.
“Now they’re coming out with these trite lines that we make our own foreign policy. Of course we make our own foreign policy. It’s ridiculous, every government does.
“That’s the problem here. Because he’s created this situation where there is criticism from Indonesia and others, and now he can’t back out.”
The embassy issue was the catalyst for a spat between Mr Morrison and his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, earlier this month.
Representing Australia at a climate change summit in Bali, Mr Turnbull met with Mr Widodo and noted Indonesia had “serious concerns” about the potential move.
“There is no question, were that move to occur, it would be met with a very negative reaction in Indonesia. This is, after all, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world,” Mr Turnbull said.
Mr Morrison did not appreciate the public commentary, and implied Mr Turnbull had gone beyond his brief.
“I got the report back from his visit. The issue of trade and other things was not really part of his brief. My view, our Government’s view about these issues, is clear. That’s what we’re pursuing,” he told 2GB radio, indicating Mr Turnbull would no longer be sent to international events as a representative of the Government.
Mr Turnbull then responded with a message on Twitter which bluntly contradicted Mr Morrison, and forced the Prime Minister to issue a clarification.
A few facts. @ScottMorrisonMP asked me to discuss trade and the embassy issue in Bali and we had a call before I left to confirm his messages which I duly relayed to @jokowi There was a detailed paper on the issue in my official brief as well.
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) November 1, 2018
The embassy question has clearly caused more than its fair share of trouble for the Government already.
Mr Morrison abruptly announced he would consider the move the week before the Wentworth by-election, leading many commentators to conclude he was doing it for political reasons. A high proportion of the electorate’s voters are Jewish.
But if it was a political calculation, it didn’t work, because Liberal candidate Dave Sharma proceeded to lose to independent Kerryn Phelps.
“We are committed to a two-state solution, but frankly, it hasn’t been going that well. Not a lot of progress has been made. And you don’t keep doing the same thing and expect different solutions,” Mr Morrison said at the time.
“When sensible suggestions are put forward that are consistent with your policy and in this case, pursuing a two-state solution, Australia should be open-minded to this and I am open-minded to this.
“I’m not going to close my mind off to things that can actually be done better and differently.”
If Australia were to move its embassy to Jerusalem, it would be following the lead of US President Donald Trump, who did the same thing earlier this year.
Mr Trump’s decision led to mass protests in Gaza, during which Israeli forces killed 58 Palestinians.
This issue will take up just a slice of Mr Morrison’s time at the ASEAN Summit.
The Prime Minister’s conversation with Mr Widodo today will also cover the threat of terrorism.
His other engagements include a first official meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, during which pair will discuss the asylum seeker children on Nauru. New Zealand has offered to resettle 150 refugees.
Mr Morrison will also meet with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Originally published as ‘Can’t back out’: Our impossible dilemma