Sometimes minor events can be eloquent – a sign of the times and a demonstration of where we are at.
So it is that a visit by a provincial leader to the biggest trading partner of his province has become not only a news story, but the focus of innuendo and outrage.
I am talking about Victorian premier Daniel Andrews’ four-day visit to China, which started this week, and the bevy of articles suggesting that there is something shady about it – with that impression bolstered by his refusal to include a media contingent.
At the macro level the controversy says something about China, our region, and the difficulties of Australian foreign policy. Once, Australia’s main trade relationships were with our strategic allies. That time has long passed.
Now we must manage a trade relationship with an autocracy, and an increasingly aggressive strategic rival to our main ally, the US.
And at the micro level, the dispute tells us something about the dire state of relations between the media in Victoria and the premier. And this trip is a convincing demonstration of another kind of democratic problem.
Let’s deal with the macro first. Once, a visit to China by a Victorian premier would have been unexceptional, and a cause for congratulations.
I was in Shanghai, working for the University of Melbourne, in 2011 when premier Ted Baillieu was also in town leading a delegation of businesses.
At a combined drinks function, Baillieu and academics chatted with local government officials and a large number of University of Melbourne alumni, who had returned home with the benefits of a Victorian education and were now working throughout government and business.
It was a celebratory affair. In university lecture halls discussion with students and academic colleagues was surprisingly free. There was great optimism that China would be liberalising, that relations between our countries could only improve to the benefit of all.
That was the year before president Xi Jinping became paramount leader, and bit by bit that optimism faded.
Some of those former students and academic colleagues are now much more cautious. Some of my former journalism students have even been detained, or banned from contact with people like me.
Baillieu had a small media contingent with him – as have most if not all premiers who have visited China since, including Andrews on his previous visits.
But things are different now. China has changed, and not in the way the optimists hoped for.
The Albanese government has been working hard to stabilise relations with China, with good results. Another trip by a premier is therefore not surprising, and indeed a good sign.
And despite some weird, innuendo-laden articles in the Victorian media, nobody respectable has suggested that Andrews shouldn’t go. Rather, the disputes are about the lack of a media contingent to accompany him, a lack of transparency about his aims and whether he should raise human rights issues.
It’s not helpful that too many commentators are stuck in binary thinking – China good or China bad – rather than dealing with the more complicated reality that China is a major power and a major trading partner and we have to learn to live in a region where it will continue to be important, and perhaps dominant, without surrendering our national interests.
That takes a subtle approach.
In interviews and speeches, Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, has made it clear that she is talking about “stabilising” the relationship with a deliberate use of language. “I don’t use the word normalise. I don’t use the word reset because … neither country is going back to where we were 15 years ago.”
Rather, she is pursuing “managed strategic competition” between the superpowers, and greater agency for the middle powers of the region, including Australia. She has talked about “guardrails” to prevent the inevitable competition between the superpowers escalating to war.
How does all that affect the visit of a provincial leader, such as Andrews?
When Baillieu and the University of Melbourne were hobnobbing in Shanghai, it was possible to believe that the economic aspects of the relationship could be separated from the strategic foreign policy.
That is no longer the case. China has demonstrated it is prepared to use trade policy as an instrument of wider foreign policy, and in particular to try to punish its critics.
Australia has not cowed under that pressure, and things are getting better now, hence the unsurprising nature of another visit to China by Andrews. But Wong has made it clear that businesses should continue to diversify their markets, because China could once again restrict trade at anytime.
Andrews is certainly too intelligent not to “get” this context, but he is eschewing any suggestion he should let it get in the way of business.
Rather, he is performing the time-honoured role of state premiers – an entrepreneur and a hustler for his state, after money and business.
He has so far resisted raising human rights issues such as the detention of the Victorian journalist Cheng Lei, let alone acknowledging concerns that new trains for Melbourne’s railway network continue to be built with parts from a Chinese company accused of using forced labour from Uyghurs.
So what about the lack of a media contingent? Most trips by state premiers and indeed Wong’s own trip to China have included media. Not many get to go. Wong’s media contingent included just two journalists.
Journalists’ presence means that travelling politicians can clarify what they are doing and, perhaps particularly important in Andrews’ case, what they are NOT doing.
The idea that such a trip can be used as a major “holding to account” is a fiction. First, getting visas is increasingly complicated and not to be taken for granted. And, once in China, access to the local officials is negligible. The main person any travelling journalists would get to see would be Andrews.
Nevertheless, of course it would be better for Andrews to take some media. I agree that his refusal to do so is a worrying sign of increasing arrogance from this long-term, dominant premier.
But here’s the thing. Would they do a good job, or would it be all “Chairman Dan” binary thinking, innuendo and local political bullshit?
Andrews won his fourth term despite an extraordinary, fact-lite and vitriolic campaign by the Murdoch press in particular, including stories suggesting there was something suspicious about the 2021 accident in which he broke his back.
While this was the Murdoch press, some of the silliness has infected most Victorian media outlets, at least since the Covid-19 lockdowns and the Daily Dan press conferences, in which the premier exemplified the art of ignoring questions, using the journalists as props while speaking over their heads to the audience watching live.
Too many in the media engage in performative watchdoggery, not actual holding to account.
Would a media contingent travelling with Andrews do better than this? We have to hope so.
But clearly Andrews reckons he can snub the media without bearing a political cost, and he is probably right about that.
That is a worrying democratic deficit – but the blame for it cuts multiple ways.