After a stint as the vice-chair of the Australian Republican Movement, serving under chairman Malcolm Turnbull, she was elected to the Senate on the NSW Liberal ticket in 1997. It would be a long spell on the backbench in the Howard government. While her progressive brand of liberalism annoyed some on the conservative side of the party, she quietly gained respect within defence and diplomatic circles in her role as chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. When Tony Abbott became prime minister, she was appointed human services minister.
After Turnbull toppled Abbott for the leadership in 2015, although still a relative unknown in wider circles, she was the obvious choice to become Australia’s first female defence minister. After a significant churn over the past decade with many politicians finishing their careers in the defence portfolio, Payne quickly earned the respect of the top brass. She escaped doing a lot of media, with the publicity-hungry Christopher Pyne in the defence industry portfolio taking up the slack.
Neil James is the executive director of the Australia Defence Association, an independent watchdog that monitors issues of national security and defence. He tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that Payne displayed an ability to push back against her department and was never driven by ideology. He says of the last “28 or 29 defence ministers, she would be in the top 10”.
“She will make a decision, she will question departmental advice when it needs to be questioned,” says James.
What has she done?
When Scott Morrison succeeded Turnbull, Morrison chose Payne as Julie Bishop’s replacement as foreign affairs minister on Bishop’s recommendation. The quiet diplomacy of Payne was always going to be a change of pace from the media-savvy Bishop.
Payne entered the role as Australia was set to navigate the most uncertain period in foreign policy since the end of World War II. Does the nation accede to China’s rise? Somehow maintain the United States as the regional hegemon? Or transition to a multipolar region where Beijing is accommodated but counterbalanced by a number of regional powers including the US, India, Indonesia and Japan?
With COVID-19 ravaging countries all over the world, these challenges have not been abated; in fact, they will only intensify in the wake of the pandemic.
Up until now, most of Payne’s days have been preoccupied with rescuing Australians stranded overseas, something which her Labor counterpart Penny Wong says she has not done nearly quick enough.
What did she do this week?
Interviewed on the ABC’s Insiders program, Payne revealed she will push for an independent body outside the World Health Organisation to probe the spread of COVID-19. The WHO has come under criticism for being too close to China and not alerting the world soon enough to the global pandemic.
While the Chinese embassy in Australia was quick to claim Australia was being Donald Trump’s mouthpiece in attacking the WHO, Payne’s call for a global inquiry into the world health body should not be conflated with the United States president’s allegations. Australia is taking its stance on the WHO out of a position of strength in fighting the spread of coronavirus, Trump from one of weakness.
Although only a middle power on the world stage, Payne and Morrison see a need for Australia to take the lead in pushing for a review, with many bigger countries, including Britain and the US, still battling major outbreaks of the deadly pandemic.
Payne on Thursday also condemned Beijing’s recent actions in the South China Sea which have included the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.
Her long-time friend and Canberra housemate, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, says Payne fills people with confidence when she speaks publicly, “but also shows more discipline than most of us by only speaking when she is certain she has something to say”.
“As most would expect, she’s stepped up both privately in her work with Scott [Morrison] and engagement with countries across the globe, but also publicly in recent weeks,” Birmingham tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“I think in some ways Marise has probably been preparing for the portfolio and a complex scenario like this for her entire 20-year career. She brings to my mind the values, judgment and discipline required to navigate the most complex of circumstances and that’s evidenced through recent weeks through having to span everything from working with DFAT as a virtual travel agency on tens of thousands of consular cases of Australians stranded around the world, to the highly challenging policy questions of how to reform the World Health Organisation and manage the deeply strategic challenges around how to navigate our relationship with China.”
Liberal MP Tim Wilson, a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party, says it was important for Payne to strongly state Australia’s national interests. “Marise has brought a precise, calm and substantive assertiveness that is sending a clear message, with the Prime Minister, that the Australian government knows where it stands, will stand up for our sovereignty and national interest and can’t be intimidated – and that is very welcome in difficult times,” says Wilson.
What happens next?
With China likely to oppose the move, Payne will now need to convince the rest of the international community to sign up to a global review independent of the WHO. Any reform of the WHO needs to bring the US back on board and not place the world body further into the hands of China, while not completely isolating Beijing at the same time.
And, while hard-working and across her brief, Payne’s reluctance to front the cameras has at times irked her colleagues. She has bolstered her office over the past year leading to a more hawkish approach to China, including the addition of Turnbull’s former national security advisor Justin Bassi as her chief of staff. Her rate of appearances, and her performances, have improved markedly over that time period, including during the global pandemic. However, as the most senior female MP in the government, some of her colleagues think it is still nowhere near enough.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.