Lunar New Year Yum Cha: 2018 Leftovers for Australia

Lunar New Year installation in Sydney, NSW. Photo by G Neilson

As opposition leader in 1971, Gough Whitlam made a risky move to visit Peking (just a few days before Henry Kissinger), and once he subsequently became Prime Minister made Australia an early partner with China. In contrast, under the leadership of Prime Minister Robert Menzies, former External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck used to repeat the prhase, “At the end of the road, there is always China,” to warn about the threat of Communism. The extensive cultural and political relationship that has developed continues to shape both the good and bad sides of domestic politics in Australia.

China’s decades-long rise across economic, political and strategic dimensions hit a turning point in 2018 in the Asia-Pacific. In 2017, Western political presence in and commitment to the Pacific began to pick up its pace in light of China’s perceived expanded presence. Over the course of my first full year living in Australia, this tension came to the forefront. Specifically, Australian leaders have tried to balance the drive for foreign investment and celebration of culture with avoiding overt political influence and over-reliance on a single trading partner.

With February 2019 marking the start of the Lunar New Year, in this post, I take a look back at several key 2018 events by the numbers that have dragged into 2019. The bite-sized dishes (like yum cha) are served up in categories of the environment, governance, international trade, economy, and security. Many (but not all) of these events were influenced by China.

ENVIRONMENT

1.3 million tonnes of waste materials no longer sent from Australia to China.

  • In late 2017, we heard about China’s “ban” on foreign waste that took full effect in early 2018, for 24 categories of solid waste that centred on recycling. In the short term, there was a crisis in local councils, increase in costs, and much of the waste may have gone to landfill; state governments still are not openly addressing the challenge of current recycling waste. Yet China’s “ban” presented an opportunity for Australians to thoughtfully consider their consumption habits and the amount of plastics they consume (such as bags, packaging or bottles), and for companies to employ new practices. The ABC ran a second season of its popular series War on Waste to challenge public and business perspectives, major retailers and states banned single-use plastic bags (with much media frenzy), and a movement to ban plastic straws picked up steam. This all led to development of the 2018 National Waste Policy which sets out to reduce Australians’ waste by 2030.  
  • While Australians have cut down on some plastic waste (see next point below), the need for a circular economy continues to go unanswered. States and territories have differing regulations but there are calls for unity as recycling domestically helps create more jobs than exporting the problem.

1.5 billion fewer plastic bags were consumed over 3 months in Australia thanks to a ban by major supermarket retailers Coles and Woolworths.

  • By charging 15 cents per bag instead of giving them away for free, Coles and Woolworths have experienced an 80 percent reduction in their usage. As of 1 July 2018, Queensland and Western Australia banned single-use, lightweight plastic bags from major retailers. All states and territories have now phased out the bags, except in the two largest states. Victoria has started a plan, while in New South Wales, they are still commonplace!
  • In 2019, Victoria’s phase-out of plastic bags will start. With an election in New South Wales, the issue may gain traction.

$444 million was granted to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation by the Turnbull Government.

  • While most everyone in Australia wants to protect the Great Barrier Reef, the grant, announced in April 2018, was controversial because it was not put through a competitive tender process per usual government practice, and at the time the Foundation had only six full-time staff. For a noncompetitive process, the auditor-general found that the grant’s objectives were to broad, such as “improved management of the Great Barrier Reef”, and disagreed with the department’s assessed value for money. The first project was awarded to the Australian Institute of Marine Science and started in January 2019.
  • Despite the controversies, to remain a viable tourist destination and thriving ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef will benefit from additional scientific attention and funding. The area faces threats from climate change and an Adani Carmichael coal mine that still faces opposition. Overall in Queensland, 2018 was a booming year for Chinese investment and boosted state leaders’ hopes for tourism.

GOVERNANCE

$18,390,818 estimated total cost (provided by the ACT Commission) for 9 by-elections since the 2016 federal election.

  • There were 7 by-elections in 2018 for federal positions due to resignations, 8 countbacks, 1 vacancy filled by the Labor selection process; these were preceded by 2 by-elections in December 2017. Between 2016 and 2017, at least 9 Senators and 2 members of the House of Representatives resigned due to the “dual citizenship crisis” in Australia. Section 44(i) of the Constitution states that those who have conflicts of interest, or loyalties to other countries such as citizenship are ineligible for Parliament. This included, among others, Former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce (who is now a backbencher due to his love affair scandal and not the citizenship crisis).
  • Across the country, by-elections were seen as a referendum on the Government. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was the most high profile politician to resign, and his was the one seat to change parties (from Liberal to Independent). A national election is due by May 2019, and already we’ve seen a movement toward more independent candidates stepping forwarding and rejecting the major parties.

85% of Australians think most or all federal Members of Parliament are corrupt, andsupport creation of an anti-corruption body, according to a 2018 report by Transparency International and Griffith University.

  • It was quite a year for local and federal corruption and foreign influence. Labor Senator Sam Dastyari was pressured to resign after a scandal over a relationship with a Chinese donor. He allowed a company owned by a Chinese billionaire to pay a legal bill and made comments about the South China Sea that went against party policy. At the local level, Queensland was particularly rocked. In Ipswitch, the entire City Council was sacked in July 2018 after 15 people with links to the council faced at least 75 charges by the Crime and Corruption Commission, including two former mayors and chief executive officers. While Ipswitch former mayors were primarily facing charges for fraud, the Gold Coast mayor was at the centre of a corruption investigation over potentially influencing council decision-making while holding interests in Chinese-owned property developments. Also, Logan City Mayor Luke Smith was charged on allegations of corruption based on receiving a boat from a Chinese property developer who donated to his election campaign fund. In a message to China, the Australian Parliament passed legislation to limit foreign interference in politics. MPs and former ministers must publicly reveal any influence by foreign governments. Separately, in contrast to Australian politicians’ recent anti-Huawei sentiments (for example, the cable controversy), the Australian Strategic Policy Institute showed in 2018 that Huawei was the biggest corporate sponsor of international trips for Australian Members of Parliament (7 trips for Liberals and 5 for Labor).
  • States maintain anti-corruption commissions, but there is still no agreement about a national body. Meanwhile, a 2018 report showed that since 2012 Australia’s GDP has potentially been reduced by 4% due to corruption. Foreign interference, on the other hand, was agreed upon as a problem due to its national security implications. The 2019 Federal Election will have its first test with its new registration portal to show forms and sources of foreign influence in Australia’s political system.  

INTERNATIONAL TRADE

500,000 tonnes of grain and 575,000 live cattle could be exported to Indonesia under the Australia-Indonesia Comprehensive Economic Partnership that was supposed to be finalised in 2018.

  • Negotiations for the FTA began in 2012, and it was supposed to be a crowning achievement of the Turnbull Government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has damaged the deal and delayed its signing – due to the fallout from his consideration of moving the Australian embassy in Israel late last year. Elections are also looming for both countries. The deal is highly sought after by agriculture and education groups, two of the most important sectors for Australia’s exports. Australian beef farmers have faced difficulties with a devalued rupiah and competition from Indian buffalo meat; fewer tariffs (and eventually zero tariffs) and raised caps for live exports were intended to lift business in the face of a drought. Despite the proximity, Indonesia is Australia’s 13th largest trading partner, and two-way trade was worth $16.4 billion in 2016-17.
  • Free trade agreements are non-partisan in Australia, so either Labor or the Coalition Government could take credit for a finalised deal with Indonesia.

187,547 Chinese international students were enrolled to study in Australia in 2017-18.

  • Education is Australia’s third largest export behind iron ore and coal, and students from China make up 30 percent of Australia’s international student population.Together, they brought in over $10 billion to the economy, almost a third of the total income of $32 billion. Chinese students are being called out by U.S. intelligence agencies among others for allegedly “spying” or thieving intellectual property (knowingly or unknowingly) on behalf of Beijing. Criticisms have also been laid on Confucius Institutes in Australia and abroad. Further, Australian universities continue to build relationships with Chinese companies, universities, and government departments like the UNSW China Centre and UNSW Torch Innovation District in order to boost rankings and research outputs, strengthen their base for international students, and commercialise research.
  • Under the Coalition Government, universities have been encouraged to seek external funding through partnerships overseas and with the private sector, with the most opportunity found in China (particularly for engineering, science, and business fields). Universities will likely continue to balance the need for funding and striving for academic freedom. 

ECONOMY

$1.8 billion committed by the Morrison Government to drought preparedness, emergency support, and low interest loans. States of NSW, Queensland, and Victoria committed an additional $1.684 billion.

  • In 2018, the drought particularly across NSW and Queensland, was called “the worst in living memory.” Rain levels in some parts of NSW were the driest on record, and the entire state was declared to be in drought. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in June while touring a drought-affected area: “I don’t know many people in rural New South Wales that I talk to that don’t think the climate is getting drier and rainfall is becoming more volatile.” In October, in one of his first actions as new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison held a National Drought Summit; notably one of the objectives to guide future Drought Reform: “farming businesses and farming communities prepare for, and adapt to, climate change and variability and their effects, including drought and high temperatures.” As of October 2018, 854 farm businesses were issued concessional loans worth $490 million.
  • Long-term action to combat climate change and cope with drought will be needed in order for farmers to succeed. Meanwhile, Australia remains committed to producing and exporting coal (its #2 export).

2.2 million temporary visa holders reside in Australia, including roughly 669,000 New Zealanders on 444 visas and 391,000 graduate students.

  • As the number of students increases, apparently over 200,000 students per year switch to other visas to continue staying in Australia. The increase in students in major cities of Melbourne and Sydney has partly contributed to a strain on transportation and other public resources (but is certainly not the only cause). Additionally there are 176,000 people on bridging visas due to the Government policy of “slowing immigration.” The number of people on bridging visas has grown by almost 40,000 in the past year.
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to cut permanent city migration; in a speech in November 2018 he said: “The roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full, the schools are taking no more enrolments.” Labor and the Coalition government and state leaders are entertaining ideas on how to cut immigration.

9.9 percent drop in house prices in 2018 in Sydney and 3.5 percent nationally.

  • According to a Domain report, house prices have fallen 11.4 percent since their peak in mid-2017, with the median price at $1,062,619. Demand fuelled by population growth outstripped supply leading to the previous years of double-digit growth. Chinese purchases of Australian real estate softened overall in 2018 due to capital controls introduced in 2017, additional taxes, and difficulty in getting financing for foreign buyers. Bank lending has also tightened due to investigations from the Royal Commission.
  • In 2019, house prices are predicted to continue to fall and may impact consumer sentiment. If Labor is able to end negative gearing, it will further support those wanting to purchase their first home.

SECURITY

>$100 million spent on Australian support for APEC hosted in Papua New Guinea.

  • Australia underwrote many costs of the 2018 APEC meeting, with a price tag of over $100 million; almost half of it supported the Australian Federal Police security commitment. According to the ABC, Australia deployed special forces soldiers and had Royal Australian Navy warships sitting off the coast to protect cruise liners that accommodated many APEC delegates. The final bill is not yet known. By comparison, China’s contributions included gifting a $35 million overhaul of the International Convention Centre and upgrading a major road with signs declaring “China Aid.”
  • Both Labor and the Coalition Government have announced plans to “step up” aid and security commitments to Pacific island neighbours to counter Chinese influence. In February, Foreign Minister Payne was the latest in a flurry of high profile Australian visitors to the region, traveling to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Tuvalu.  

$2 billion in concessional loan and grant schemes were allocated by the Morrison Government for infrastructure projects in the Pacific. Another $1 billion will be able in export financing.

  • In November, Australia’s announcement of an infrastructure bank, Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility, is in line with the U.S. announcement in July of USD$113 million in new infrastructure initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region. In July 2018, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. announced a trilateral partnership to “enhance peace and security in the Indo-Pacific” by mobilising investment in transportation, energy, tourism, and technology infrastructure. This pact seeks to combat China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Meanwhile, whether or not anyone believes it, Labor leader Bill Shorten said that his planned infrastructure spending increase in the Pacific is not about China. According to the Asian Development Bank, emerging economies in the region will require at least USD$26 trillion for infrastructure by the year 2030. This figure has been adjusted for climate change and is more than double their 2009 estimate.
  • Still, an increase in frequency and strength in natural disasters may worsen infrastructure prospects; leaders in Australia will be called upon to do more than throw money at projects that can be considered climate change adaptation.

1,587 U.S. Marines were stationed in Darwin.

  • A record number of U.S. Marines were in Darwin for six months in 2018 to train alongside the Australian Defence Force. Troops from Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore,  France, and Thailand also were invited to take part in 15 training exercises in the area.
  • In the future, more U.S. troops may be in the area to support redevelopment of the PNG naval base at Manus Island. The AFR considers the PNG base a counter to “Beijing’s aspirations for military facilities of their own in PNG.”