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The View from Across the Pacific

Washington gains a friend in Canberra.

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Canberra has joined Tokyo and other U.S. allies in Asia by electing a conservative government vowing less tax on business, robust defense, support for the United States, and guarded cooperation with China. A big victory in Australia’s national election on September 7 for Tony Abbott’s Liberal-Nationals ends six years of political tumult under Labor.

Mystify me concert photography

Tony Abbott

Mystify me concert photography

The last Liberal-National government, under John Howard (1996-2007), in which Abbott held domestic portfolios, was followed by revolving-door rule under Kevin Rudd (capable but erratic) and Julia Gillard (a creature of the unions). The pair fought like cats and governed one after the other by shuffling policies in line with poll numbers. “The circus has got to stop,” Abbott snapped in a campaign debate with Rudd. Labor, now with only 50-odd seats in Parliament to Abbott’s 90-odd, is on the ropes as seldom before in its distinguished history as Australia’s oldest party.

In the face of Labor’s death spiral, voters, although grown soft on government largesse, serenely chose a very conservative prime minister. Abbott once told me of Labor’s spendthrift years under Gough Whitlam (1972-75), “Fiscally, it was a lunatic’s existence.” He said launching his campaign: “Government’s job is rarely to tell people what to do. Mostly, it’s to make it easier for people to make their own choices.” Holding power in Canberra and enjoying Liberal-National rule in all the major states, Abbott will axe an unfortunate carbon emissions tax and a punitive tax on mining. “We will restore an appetite for risk and investment,” said incoming finance chief Andrew Robb.

Abbott recently told Mary Kissel of the Wall Street Journal, “All successful societies are inherently conservative, and Australia is undeniably a successful society.” He eschews Black Armband talk (the Aussie term for the self-flagellation of Australian intellectuals for past treatment of Aborigines and other shortcomings). He told Kissel: “The Rudd-Gillard government has been a highly statist government, the Brown government reverted to statism with a vengeance in Britain, and Barack Obama is the most left-of-center [U.S.] government in at least half a century.” Only Abbott’s generous ears give him a point in common with Obama.

Abbott has a quick tongue, and he rashly said Syria’s tragedy is “baddies versus baddies.” In 2008 he enraged a left enamored of Obama by saying, “He sounds terrific but I don’t know what’s really there” (the remark improves with age). When Mandarin-speaking Rudd struck a horrendous patch with Beijing, Abbott said Australia’s relationship with China “has not noticeably strengthened despite the change [from Howard] to a prime minister who can speak to the Chinese in their own language.”

Australia sees itself as a bridge to the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, much as Texas sees itself as a bridge to the Latin world. Canberra proved its muscle-power in the first area in 1999 over East Timor and in 2003 over the Solomon Islands; the central country in Southeast Asia is Indonesia, whose current relations with Australia are good (and important to U.S. interests). You would think this area should be Australia’s security sphere. But the internationalists in the Australian foreign ministry and most pundits would never be content with such a modest role. Defense planners talk of “Indo-Pacific” as the “system” of which Australia is part.  

As in Washington, the two sides exhibit differences in China policy. Labor includes panda lovers but also some who make human rights central in dealings with Beijing. Abbott’s broad tent has a majority for business-as-usual, but a minority as wary of Beijing as Labor idealists are. A neat package in China policy is elusive.

Abbott and his articulate foreign minister, Julie Bishop, plan to state Australia’s interests, listen to China’s, and do business on that basis, following Howard’s approach. Under Howard, trade with China grew an astonishing 626 percent in a decade, yet he told an audience at the Communist Party School in Beijing that hectored him about meeting the Dalai Lama: “If it was good enough for Australians to tolerate the continuation of the Communist party as a legal entity, it ought to be good enough for Chinese to tolerate the leader of a friendly country [Australia] allowing the Dalai Lama to visit and to see him.”

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