Scott Morrison has doubled down on his demand that the source of the coronavirus outbreak be thoroughly investigated, telling the United Nations that such a calamity must never be allowed to happen again.
In comments that threaten again to annoy China, the Prime Minister has used his annual address to the UN General Assembly in New York to claim “a clear mandate to identify the zoonotic source of the COVID-19 virus and how it was transmitted to humans”.
“The virus has inflicted a calamity on our world and its peoples,” he said in a virtual speech to be delivered early Saturday morning, Australian time.
“We must do all we can to understand what happened for no other purpose than to prevent it from happening again.”
He noted that since he first advocated such an inquiry, 145 nations co-sponsored a World Health Assembly motion in May for a probe into the outbreak, which is believed to have emanated from a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Mr Morrison’s original call catalysed a rapid deterioration in the relationship with China and is suspected to have contributed to retribution by Beijing, including the imposition of crippling tariffs on Australian barley imports and threat to do the same with wine.
In his speech to the UN, Mr Morrison maintained the pressure on China over other aspects of its behaviour, such as its territorial gains in the South and East China seas.
“We value rules that protect sovereignty, peace and security, and curb the excessive use of power,” he said.
“As Australians we also prize respect for international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes through dialogue.
“This includes ensuring that competing territorial and maritime claims are based on, and determined in line with, international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
With a global race afoot in search of a coronavirus vaccine, Mr Morrison pledged to share any breakthrough that Australia might make and said every other nation should do the same.
“Whoever finds the vaccine must share it,” he said.
“This is a global responsibility, and it’s a moral responsibility, for a vaccine to be shared far and wide.
“Some might see short-term advantage, or even profit. But I assure you to anyone who may think along those lines, humanity will have a very long memory and be a very, very severe judge.
“Australia’s pledge is clear: if we find the vaccine we will share it. That’s the pledge we all must make.”
Repeating the case for reform
Mr Morrison also used the speech to reaffirm Australia’s commitment to multilateral bodies, albeit on tougher terms.
In a significant speech in October last year, Mr Morrison announced an audit of Australia’s role in international organisations, warning that globalism threatened to impinge on Australia’s sovereignty.
He did not advocate withdrawing from multilateral organisations but said Australia must seek greater input into the rules set by those bodies.
In his UN speech, Mr Morrison again made the case to reform the World Trade Organisation, especially its ability to settle disputes and adapt to digital trade.
“We won’t retreat into the downward spiral of protectionism in Australia. So we’re leading efforts to reform the World Trade Organisation,” he said.
“We’re advocating for trade rules that are predictable, transparent and non‑discriminatory.”
“Our aim is simple, to deny the virus the destruction it seeks to visit upon us, upon our lives and our livelihoods.”
He also lent support to the UN bodies of which Australia was a member, saying Australia relied heavily on the international standards that UN technical bodies set, especially in areas such as aviation, telecommunications and health.
“These issues are vital to all of our prosperity, and we want to play a bigger role alongside business and civil society in setting relevant and efficient standards.
“We need to make sure these standards serve all countries rather than any single power, and that they are developed in line with the fundamental principles of the global order.”
Mr Morrison said Australia was contending with the storm of the global COVID-19 pandemic and recession with great determination.
“Our aim is simple, to deny the virus the destruction it seeks to visit upon us, upon our lives and our livelihoods.
“Sadly, over 800 Australians have lost their lives to COVID-19. But in comparative terms we have fared better than most and we are grateful for that.”
The speech was Mr Morrison’s second UN address since becoming Prime Minister. Last year, when he was in New York, he sought support for an initiative to rid the world’s oceans from plastics pollution.
This year, with the world in the grip of the pandemic, Mr Morrison used the occasion to tell of Australia’s relative success thus far in containing the virus.
“Our COVID-19 case and fatality rates are a fraction of those across the globe,” he said.
“And while our economy has not been spared the blow of recession, our first in almost 30 years in Australia, the impact has been far less than almost every other developed economy in the world.
“Almost half the jobs that we had lost to the virus early on have been already recovered. Australia is getting on with the job.”
By Phillip Coorey