The surprise election victory of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last weekend not only shook up the country’s political landscape, but also potentially bodes well for another country thousands of miles away, Israel.
“We have had a strong and constructive relationship with Scott Morrison personally and had a very good working relationship with the government he led,” Jeremy Jones, director of international and community affairs for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), tells JNS. “We also have worked with many members of the Opposition and the Cross-benchers. We saw the defeat of a number of racist candidates and MPs who associated with maximalist anti-Israel groups.”
The victory by Morrison, who hails from the center-right Liberal Party, echoes some of the surprise electoral success other decidedly pro-Israel right-wing candidates have seen in recent years around the world such as with U.S. President Donald Trump, and more recently, with Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and potentially in Canada as well next October. However, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, who has also staked a strong pro-Israel stance in Europe, now faces snap elections after his junior coalition partner resigned from the government following a video scandal.
“The Australian government is not ‘populist’ in the sense of Donald Trump or Bolsonaro or even [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. It is conservative, center-right and ran on a platform of economic responsibility, not populism. Australia has compulsory voting, which militates in favor of responsible centrism,” says Jones.
Netanyahu, who visited Australia in 2017, quickly congratulated Morrison on his victory.
“I send congratulations to another friend of mine, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who won the elections after the polls consistently predicted that he would lose. At the last minute, in the final hours, he won. He defined this is a miracle. Then Scott, congratulations, ‘and I do not know what you are saying,’ ” Netanyahu said on Sunday during his cabinet meeting.
Morrison, who took office last August after ousting former party leader and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, drew headlines last fall after he suggested that he was “open” to the idea of moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem.
While it seemed that Morrison was initially opened to the idea of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy there, ultimately the Australian leader only recognized western Jerusalem as the country’s capital and opened a “Defense and Trade Office” in Jerusalem instead. This move was likely due to pressure from Australia’s Muslim neighbor Indonesia, which had been outspoken against the embassy relocation.
Nevertheless, Jones expects Morrison to continue to be a strong friend of the Jewish community and Israel, saying he “has been engaged with issues of direct concern to the Jewish community, as he attended school with many Jewish students, has political influences well-disposed to Israel and Jewry, and he is a committed Christian who is well-versed in the Bible.”
Indeed, Morrison, an evangelical Christian who first took office last August, will likely continue to build on his country’s strong pro-Israel stance.
Is an embassy move to Jerusalem in the cards?
Despite their geographical distance, both countries have a robust economic relationship, with more than $1.1 billion in bilateral trade annually. Many Israeli companies operate in Australia, providing IT services such as cybersecurity and agricultural technology.
In 2017, Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Australia as part of his ongoing diplomatic efforts to bolster Israel’s relations around the world. During the visit, Netanyahu and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull signed a number of bilateral agreements in areas such as education, innovation, agriculture, water, energy and environmental protection.
More recently, in March 2019, the two countries also signed their first-ever tax treaty, which will help to prevent double taxation and tax avoidance.
In addition to Morrison, other pro-Israel lawmakers also saw electoral success in last weekend’s election. Liberal Party politician Dave Sharma, the country’s former ambassador to Israel from 2013 to 2017, won a close race for a seat from the heavily Jewish district of Wentworth, a suburb of Sydney.
Given his previous experience, Sharma is already reportedly being considered for a cabinet post and has said he is open to the idea of an embassy move.
“I think we should be open to considering it as Australians. The U.S. has done it,” Sharma said during the campaign.
Yet Jones does not expect any major policy shifts in the near future for the Morrison government, including an embassy move.
“The Morrison government will most likely act with prudence and careful consideration of many different factors in any further actions relating to Israel generally and Jerusalem specifically,” he says. “We do not expect any immediate variation on the current policies.”
Instead, Jones says that his organization will work closely with Morrison to focus attention on the growing threat of Iran.
“We will be urging the government to focus more attention on the threat of Iranian adventurism, as well as urging continued support for peace-building through people-to-people engagements and direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”