China deal: Sovereignty rules with the flex of constitutional muscle

China deal: Sovereignty rules with the flex of constitutional muscle

A symbolic reassertion of Australian national sovereignty against the states and a more explicit rejection of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s defining strategy — the Belt and Road Initiative — has seen the Morrison government flex its political muscles over constitutional powers.

The states have overreached on two counts — their unjustified, albeit popular, closure of most borders and the earlier decision of the Andrews Labor government in Victoria to sign up to China’s BRI — with Scott Morrison building political pressure on the former and now using constitutional authority to repeal the latter.

Facing pressure this week over the conditions in aged-care accommodation, the Prime Minister sought to switch the political debate to the national interest imperative demanding that Australia deal with Beijing with “one voice”, thereby picking a guaranteed electoral winning issue. The announcement by Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne of a new Australian foreign relations bill to override state governments in making agreements with foreign governments is an assertion of national responsibility, the aim being to tear up Premier Daniel Andrews’s BRI deal with China.

This bill attacks Andrews at his weakest point. His overreach on China lacks a constitutional foundation. Andrews is going to be humiliated. It will deepen the fracture between the Morrison and Andrews governments — witness the petulant response from Andrews this week. “There is only one sovereignty in Australia and it’s Australian,” Morrison said in a rebuttal to other levels of government.

This comes after a week when the Prime Minister’s angst over state border closures reached a new intensity, climaxing with Morrison’s demands on Friday for an explanation from Queensland over a NSW mother who lost an unborn child after a border debacle.

The Morrison BRI stand, obviously, is not driven by border closures. But its context amid commonwealth-state rifts over constitutional powers cannot be avoided with a frustrated Prime Minister — who sees sovereignty as the core lesson from the pandemic — taking resort to the external affairs power to impose a national interest foreign policy on the premiers.