30 July 2012
By Tim Soutphommasane
It is often said that being the leader of the opposition is the hardest job in Australian politics. For the past 2 years, Tony Abbott has made it look relatively easy. Few would deny that he has been devastatingly effective during that period. But so far, his credentials as an alternative prime minister remain untested. Labor’s endless internal dramas, and its penchant for mishaps, have allowed Abbott to escape the spotlight.
It is time that we place the Opposition Leader on centre stage. The past week has only confirmed that some serious questions need to be asked. Is Abbott ready to become prime minister? Can Australians trust him to lead in the national interest?
Abbott’s visit to the United States and China certainly attracted all the wrong attention for him. The trip failed to deliver the intended result of lending him some statesman-like gravitas.
His widely reported speech in Beijing last Tuesday was revealing. Abbott lectured his Chinese audience about why they needed democratic reform. He signalled a possible Australian role in stepping into disputes in the South China Sea. On economics, Abbott made clear his distaste for foreign investment by Chinese state-owned enterprises. On more than one count, this was a display of poor judgment.
To be fair, many of our political leaders don’t come to foreign affairs naturally. Some don’t take an active interest in it. Others find diplomacy beyond their metier. Still others view foreign affairs as merely another arena for conducting domestic politics.
In Abbott’s case, there are early indications that any government he leads may disrupt Australia’s relationships with Asia. His adversarial posturing may already have inflicted some damage on our relations with China.
Beyond this, some of our closer neighbours have bristled at his zealous politicisation of boat arrivals. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has, on more than one occasion, openly criticised the Coalition’s policy of turning back boats carrying asylum seekers.
In more ideological terms, Abbott’s regular effusions about ”the Anglosphere” point to a troubling blind spot. Particularly for observers in the region, such enthusiasm smacks of thinking that Australia must seek security from Asia rather than security in it.
This is a point that even leading Australian conservatives concede. For example, foreign affairs commentator Greg Sheridan wrote of Abbott’s 2009 book, Battlelines, that its passages on the Anglosphere were ”silly and sterile and lead nowhere in policy terms”.
But it isn’t just foreign affairs that are a source of concern. Look no further than economics.
The Coalition under Abbott has a long way to go before it can offer fiscal credibility. Consider its promise to scrap a carbon price scheme. Add to that the promises to introduce a generous paid parental leave scheme and to restore defence spending.
These aren’t modest pledges. The Coalition would have to find more than $70 billion over four years to fund them. Yet Abbott has been quick to rule out raising the rate of the GST (though shadow treasurer Joe Hockey has hinted at the possibility).
Clearly, if an Abbott government were committed to budget surpluses, it would have to undertake some drastic cuts to public services. Those who would vote for such a government should know they might be voting for this. Either that, or for an Abbott government with a Whitlam-esque appetite for public spending.
Economic management is one area where surprises may be in store under an Abbott-led government. For the most part, however, we can be assured that any Abbott premiership will reflect the man: the muscular Christianity, the Anglo-centrism, the combative instincts, the conservative ideology.
Yet we shouldn’t mistake any such familiarity to mean that an Abbott government wouldn’t reshape the Australian political culture. It would.
Abbott is, without question, the most conservative figure to lead the Liberal Party. Much of his hyper-partisanship is based on the templates of American Republican and Tea Party political strategy. His reactionary populism has imported some of the very worst aspects of American politics into our debates.
The net result has been that our political system now finds it hard to strike compromise for the common good. Bipartisanship of just about any kind has come to an end. We should ask whether this is the kind of politics we want.
If we do find ourselves with a Prime Minister Abbott, we can only hope that he replaces partisan excess with civic restraint.
Abbott should look to his younger, more idealistic self. In his maiden speech to Parliament in 1994, there was a lament that ”one of the depressing features of modern Australia is the low esteem in which governments and politicians are generally held”.
To date, alas, Abbott the politician has done more than his share to entrench this low esteem.