While there has been a broad consensus between Labor and Liberal on how Australia should deal with China in recent years, Mr Marles’ idea would take it to another level.
The council would attempt to construct “settled bipartisan positions” on China policy “that almost look like doctrine, so our departments can have confidence of our position not over the next three years but the next 30 years,” he said in an interview for the forthcoming Quarterly Essay Red Flag: Waking up to China’s challenge.
It would not be “just some pollies in the members’ dining room,” he said, but something like a cabinet. Its membership would be public, but its proceedings private.
Mr Marles, the opposition defence spokesman, acknowledged that the government would need to lead in setting up any such council.
He suggested that it be properly resourced by the government, with the benefit of full briefings from the public service. “I’ve never felt the need so acutely to get some bipartisanship on this,” he said.
Privately, some relevant cabinet ministers were non-committal on the idea, but one said that Mr Marles had made his task harder by criticising Prime Minister Scott Morrison in September for conducting “megaphone diplomacy” with China.
On that occasion, Mr Marles said: “What I can say is that the state of the relationship as it exists between Australia and China right now is terrible,” blaming the government for mismanaging it and lacking respect for Beijing.
That was a “stupid speech” for Mr Marles to give, according to a cabinet minister. Nonetheless, the minister said that a bipartisan council could have value because it would reinforce Australia’s ability to “push back” against Chinese coercion and intrusion.
Mr Marles emphasised that Australia’s large economic exposure to China created a dilemma for Australia in how to respond to Beijing’s assertiveness.
The national security agencies were more disposed to pushing back while the economic and foreign affairs agencies were more likely to appease it.
Peter Hartcher’s Quarterly Essay Red Flag: Waking up to China’s challenge is published on Monday.