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Conservatism on Top Down Under

Meet Tony Abbott, the likely next prime minister of Australia

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By FRED BARNES
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Australian election campaigns are different too. They’re blessedly shorter, only five weeks from the moment the date of an election is set to voting. Endless races to nominate candidates for prime minister don’t exist. The incumbent prime minister and the leader of the opposition run only in their districts, not nationally. There’s no presidential race because there’s no president. However, the two party leaders act during campaigns as presidential candidates. They’re the central figures who meet in one-on-one TV debates. Voting is mandatory, which means get-out-the-vote drives, like President Obama’s sophisticated effort last year, are unnecessary. So are appeals to the party base. Since everyone votes, the only sensible strategy is to appeal to the center.

Here’s the bad part: Some of the more unpleasant aspects of American campaigns are alive and well in Australia. Take the obsession with gaffes. Once the media discover one, they crave more. Making fun of a candidate, especially if it’s someone you loathe, is fun. It’s contagious. Just ask Mitt Romney.

In the second week of the campaign, Abbott said this at a Liberal rally: “No one, however smart, however well-educated, however experienced is the suppository of all wisdom.” It was either a malapropism or a slip of tongue. He obviously meant “repository.” That didn’t matter. It was instantly designated a gaffe. Abbott, in the eyes of the media, became gaffe-prone. The dragnet to find more gaffes was on.

The next day, he was asked by a reporter what Liberal candidate Fiona Scott had in common with an earlier female candidate. “They’re young, they’re feisty, I think I can probably say they have a little sex appeal,” he answered. The media pounced, tracking down feminists and political foes to pan Abbott as a sexist for having cited Scott’s sex appeal. (Abbott is married with three daughters.)

Then came Abbott’s comment about gay marriage. Spokesmen for gay organizations, plus a few Labor members of Parliament, were rounded up to criticize Abbott for the error of his ways. A few days later, Katy Perry was heard from. Abbott was unrepentant. In a second debate with Rudd last week, he suggested his party might support gay marriage some day, but he never would.

That debate prompted commentators to ask and answer their favorite post-debate question, the same here as in America: Was there a knockout blow? There wasn’t. There never is. It’s a dumb question. Important things happen in debates but not because a killer punch is landed. Rudd said Abbott was winning the election, a rare admission by a candidate who’s behind. Rudd acted like the challenger, Abbott the confident and steady prime minister. Abbott tried a Reagan line. “Are we doing better now than we were six years ago?” It flopped.

In one respect, the Rudd-Abbott struggle is like Obama versus Romney. It’s very, very negative. In Rudd’s statement announcing the election, he denounced “wall to wall negativity,” “negative personal politics,” and “the old politics of division.” Then he launched into a thinly veiled attack on Abbott. Rudd has to attack. His years as prime minister were marked by failed policies, flip-flops, and broken promises. So he ignores his record. Abbott cites it as evidence of what three more years with Rudd at the helm would produce.

Among Rudd’s targets is Rupert Murdoch, who began his media career in his native Australia and is still a political force here. Rudd charged that Murdoch is using his newspapers to help his “mate,” Abbott, to win. The Australian, in particular, has been tough on Rudd. TV news and major papers in Sydney and Melbourne have been kinder to Rudd. Murdoch also owns newspapers in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide.

Rudd and Abbott have no U.S. equivalents I could think of. Rudd is frenetic, always in motion. He sleeps four hours a night. He’s been described as having “a baby face, a full head of hair, a motor mouth, and a drive for power.” While campaigning, he exudes charm. People are drawn to him. In personality comparisons with Abbott, he comes out ahead.

“The problem is Rudd’s determination that whatever position he holds on any issue is cast as a soul-identifying question of moral absolutes,” the Australian’s Sheridan, who’s known Rudd for decades, wrote. Rudd has core beliefs. “Yet, astonishingly, they keep changing,” Sheridan wrote. For years, he opposed gay marriage. Now he argues for it in grave moral terms. “If the election were a referendum on political authenticity, Rudd would lose,” Sheridan said. In the Australian last week, columnist Janet Albrechtsen called Rudd a psychopath—of the political, not the criminal variety. The Spectator labeled him a “complete and utter fraud.”

If Rudd is a sprinter, Abbott is a long-distance runner—indeed, he’s a fitness nut who competes as a triathlete. Rudd talks. Abbott fights. One of the most riveting political battles in Parliament pitted Abbott against Gillard when she was prime minister. In 2012, Gillard claimed sexism was behind attacks on her. She and Abbott clashed when Abbott accused an appointee of “sexist and misogynist” behavior. “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” she fired back. “I will not.” Abbott “says that people who hold sexist views and are misogynists are not appropriate for high office. Well, I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation.”

Rudd’s insistence that Abbott wants to “cut, cut, cut” government programs gives a false impression of Abbott’s views. As prime minister, he would spend less than Rudd, but he’s no libertarian. In the United States, he would qualify as a big government conservative. His plan to provide parental leave payments of up to $75,000 a year dwarfs Rudd’s own. But he didn’t flinch when Rudd savaged his proposal in last week’s debate.

What happened after the debate was revealing. Rudd zipped off to still another campaign event. Abbott lingered to chat with undecided Brisbane voters who’d been invited to question the candidates. The questions were mostly unsympathetic to Abbott. But when a straw poll was taken, he beat Rudd, 37 to 35.

For Americans, does it matter who wins the Australian election? The answer is yes, but probably not much. Bipartisan support for a strategic alliance with the United States has been a fundamental tenet of Australian politics for decades.

With its longstanding fear of an invasion, Australia regards the U.S. tie as a pillar of its defense. That won’t change. And the alliance allows America to disperse its projection of power in the Pacific. The need for that won’t change either. In fact, the Aussie-Yank tie was strengthened in 2011 with the establishment of a U.S. Marine base in Darwin, on Australia’s North Coast, the city closest to China. The Chinese were displeased. Too bad.

American military leaders admire Australia’s reliability. Since World War II, Australia has deployed troops in every American war—Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Aussie special forces played a critical role in Iraq, entering the country prior to the American invasion to destroy Scud batteries primed to unleash a missile attack on Israel. In Afghanistan, they joined efforts to kill Taliban fighters.

So what’s the issue? One is the decline in defense spending by the Labor government. Gillard and Rudd are solid supporters of the alliance with the United States. They criticized the American intervention in Iraq without trying to withdraw Australian troops. Kim Beazley, the enormously popular ambassador in Washington, strongly defended President Bush and the war.

But the defense budget declined each year on Labor’s watch. And Americans have begun to press for higher spending. Senator John McCain and former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, both major players in military affairs, have done so. On this matter, Abbott is more likely than Rudd to take their advice. But Rudd might have an advantage in dealing with the Obama administration. A brainy ex-diplomat, he’s more Obama’s type than the pugnacious Abbott.

As Liberal leader, Abbott would simply have a freer hand in dealing with the United States on military and other issues. His party has no anti-American wing. The Labor party does. Its left wing was once dominated by Communists. That’s no longer the case. But it is obsessed with America’s influence and opposes nearly every tie to Washington, especially the ones that require Australia to provide troops. Rudd might not agree with them, but he’d have to take their views into account.

And on trade, Abbott would probably be more proactive in seeking free-trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement now being negotiated by a dozen nations.

Australians are worried. The conference of smart people from Australia and America I attended in Sydney was off the record. But I don’t think I’m violating that ground rule by saying this was the message from the Aussie side. They’re worried about their economy. They’re worried about national security in a region where China is big and mean. They’re worried about being ignored by their most important ally. They feel alone and sometimes forgotten.

Americans roll their eyes when they hear this. After all, Australia hasn’t had a recession for 21 years. Thanks to zero national debt and solvent banks, Australia escaped the Great Recession. For more than a decade, it has experienced an extraordinary mining boom, chiefly by exporting iron ore and coal to China. This has boosted the economy, enriched the country, and flooded the government with tax revenue.

A month ago, Rudd declared the “boom is over.” China’s growth rate is slowing, which translates into fewer resources imported from Australia. Unemployment in Australia, a mere 5.7 percent, is projected by government economists to rise to 6.2 percent in coming months.

“This election will be about who the Australian people trust to best lead them through difficult new economic challenges,” Rudd said. But it’s not. Neither Rudd nor Abbott has outlined a comprehensive plan for a “new” economy, and the press doesn’t seem terribly interested in the subject. This is good. Australians only have to look to the United States to see the pathetic result of government schemes for creating an economy “for the 21st century.” Markets do a better job at this, without extensive government interference.

Australians like America. That’s why 60,000 of them live in Los Angeles. They were encouraged by President Obama’s announcement in 2012 of “America’s Pacific century.” The idea was to pay more attention to the Far East. It hasn’t happened. Australians feel the United States is too easily distracted. They cite, as one example, Secretary of State John Kerry’s quixotic effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks. Australians may have an inordinate fear of invasion, including by uninvited “boat people,” but with 23 million people, they are badly outnumbered in Asia. They need constant reassurance that America cares about them as friend and protector. No matter who wins the election, whether Rudd or Abbott is prime minister, I think that’s the least we could do.

Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.

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