Politics

Canada, Australia have to stand up to 'bullies' like China, says former Australian PM

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says his country is getting a little too much credit for calling for an investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic — but "middle powers" like Canada and Australia still need to stand firm against "imperial" bullies like China.

Trudeau was 'flaky' during final stages of CPTPP negotiations, says Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull waves while holding his granddaughter Alice during a final press conference before leaving Parliament in Canberra Aug. 24, 2018. (Andrew Taylor/The Associated Press)

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says his country is getting a little too much credit for calling for an investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic — but "middle powers" like Canada and Australia still need to stand firm against "imperial" bullies like China.

Speaking to CBC News Network's Power & Politics in an interview airing today, Turnbull said that when his country's current prime minister, Scott Morrison, called for the investigation in April, China reacted with indignation and the world applauded because everyone misunderstood Australia's motivations.

"I think the Australian government's call in this regard was misrepresented or misinterpreted to some extent, because it was conflated with a lot of the rhetoric coming out of the White House which is seeking to, you know, really blame China for the pandemic and zero-in on ... alleged cover-ups and so forth in China," Turnbull told host Vassy Kapelos. 

Conservatives have accused the Liberal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of taking too soft a line with China over its initial response to the outbreak.

Turnbull, currently promoting his book A Bigger Picture, said that Australia should be seen as a country trying to get answers about how the pandemic started so it will not be repeated.

"We need to have ... a thorough, no shame, no blame investigation of how the virus originated, what was done to contain it or not done to contain it, both in China and also around the world," he said.

"I mean, we can't kid ourselves. Yes, let's assume that the Chinese authorities were slow to react and slow to recognize it ... perhaps there was some denialism going on. It's very common in bureaucracies. Look at the denialism of climate change … There is a human tendency to refuse to accept that something terrible is descending upon you."

Watch: Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on why Canada needs to take a harder stance on China:

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on why Canada needs to take a harder stance on China, and how it might be able to get the upper hand. 4:52

In dealing with China, Turnbull said, countries like Canada and Australia need to stick to their positions without needlessly shooting their mouths off.

"In the imperial capital, whether it's Beijing or Washington or Rome or Constantinople or London or Paris ... they regard deference as their due," Turnbull said. "So if you are sycophantic or compliant with an imperial power, or a bully of any kind, that will just be accepted and [they will] ask for more.

"Middle powers like Canada and Australia have to state their position very clearly, and when they draw a line in the sand, stick to it. Weakness will be exploited by bullies. That's true whether it's on the international stage or whether it's in the playground."

China and Huawei

By way of example, Turnbull cites his decision to ban Chinese technology giant Huawei from participating in the development of his country's 5G wireless network.

"When we made the decision on Huawei, for example, we explained, we made the decision, we announced it," he said. "We did so in a very, very factual way. We didn't seek to demonize anybody. There was no flowery rhetoric or anything like that but we just said, 'Right, this is the line, drawn here.'"

Turnbull also defended the criticism he levelled in his book against Trudeau over the way he handled the closing stages of negotiating the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

"You know pulling out of things at the last minute, whether it's in business, or in international affairs, is always going to be seen as unusual, flaky ... erratic. Call it what you will," he said.

Watch: Malcolm Turnbull on Justin Trudeau:

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turbull discusses his relationship with Justin Trudeau and the criticism he levelled against the Canadian prime minister for his role in Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks. 8:32

Turnbull said that, once U.S. President Donald Trump signaled his intention to pull out of the trade deal, he resisted the temptation to declare the deal dead and instead worked hard to keep it alive.

Turnbull said that by the end of 2017, the revised deal was ready and a signing ceremony had been arranged when it emerged that Canada was pulling out of the deal.

"Canada pulled out, and it was flaky. Look, there's no other way you can describe it because the night before, the Canadian trade minister [François-Philippe Champagne] had said that it was that it was all going ahead," he said. 

Turnbull said Trudeau's last-minute wavering may have convinced some people that he lacked substance.

"I think when he became prime minister he was presented as being a lightweight because he was young and good-looking," he said. "And you know, if you're young and good-looking, people often, older people, will say, 'Oh, you know it's all show and no substance.'

"They said that about Jacinda Ardern, by the way, when she became prime minister of New Zealand and look what a leader she's developed into. I never regarded Justin in that light but I assume there were some vagaries of Canadian politics that underpinned it."

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