Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Abbott

Tony Abbot’s Foreign Policy Speech

Tony Abbott is a smart man, but he has something of the the optimists essential flaw of believing there is no trade off between outcomes for different policy options. In his book Battlelines he advocates free market economics and big spending social conservatism without ever noting that they could contradict. Likewise in his speech today for the Lowy Institute, he takes inspiration from the Howard government to argue that Australia should actively promote its values overseas, (and that this is intimately linked to our national security) however he then uses a standard realist framework to reject almost every action of the Keating & Rudd governments as a waste of resources in favour of utopian ideals.

Take this key quote early on in the speech:

There was the massive aid and relief effort to Indonesia in the wake of the East Asian tsunami. All of these were evidence of Australia‟s determination to be a force for good in the wider world and resolve not to leave to others the high task of working for the betterment of mankind wherever we could lend a helping hand….The Howard Government appreciated that Australia‟s national interest could not be pursued oblivious to the big issues of the wider world. It understood, as I‟m sure the Rudd Government does too, that Australia has a clear interest in advancing freedom and decency and in eradicating poverty. One country can hardly transform the planet but, especially in our immediate region, we have a particular obligation to conduct our national security policies consistently with our values. Australia‟s recent work in East Timor not only exemplifies this approach but also illustrates how perceptions of our international role have changed. This would have been a mission inconceivable in the period from Whitlam to Keating, when we were much more equivocal about standing up for our values on the global stage.

While there was a rhetorical shift from the late 1990’s where the Howard Government talked of selling Australian values, while the Keating Government talked about supporting universal values (that were not coincidently also Australian values), at a more fundamental level Abbott’s statement is hard to justify. Leaving East Timor aside for the moment, the previous Hawke-Keating government was consistently attacked by the Coalition for spending too much time promoting “values” overseas, rather than focusing on core national security. The Hawk-Keating Government made the promotion of Australian values central to its foreign policy. It secured restrictions on chemical weapons, launched a major anti-nuclear proliferation campaign, played a fundamental role in the resolution of a peaceful, and eventually democratic government in Cambodia, developed Cairns and APEC to promote free trade, lead & achieved a ban on mining in Antarctica, and Hawke played a big role in getting the Commonwealth to act to overturn apartheid in South Africa. Phew! No wonder Howard came to office promising a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ style of government in response.

So then is Abbott suggesting these acts were not supporting Australian values? While he is clearly trying to be bipartisan in including Fraser in his attack, his comments seem less about partisanship than simply not knowing/ommitting the history. As an aside all the examples he praises seem to involve military troops at work, are they the only tool Australia can use to promote it’s values?. Though quickly after the above quote there is also the equivocation by Abbott that (when speaking about Iraq & Afghanistan) “In neither intervention was Australia seeking to “export democracy” although the removal of abhorrent regimes necessitated the establishment of freer and fairer societies. So was Howard creating a new tradition of activism to support Australian values or was he following a traditional Australian realist path ?(As for East Timor, Howard did the right thing when the opportunity came to promote an independent East Timor arose after Suharto left power in 1998. Before then he followed the same path as his predecessors, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke & Keating. Australia reacted to help secure East Timor’s independence, it is flat out wrong to suggest we initiated their independence.)

Yet despite this priority in favour of values, Abbott takes a standard realist line when it comes to Rudd’s activism:

it‟s hard to see much taxpayer value in the Rudd Government‟s anti-nuclear and Security Council membership campaigns. Over this year and next, the Government is spending $9.2 million to promote nuclear disarmament, much of which will be spent on the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) which Mr Rudd set up in 2008. Of course, anything Gareth Evans and his fellow Commission members could do to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea would be welcome. That prospect, though, seems unlikely and, meanwhile, the Commission uses taxpayer dollars to promote the improbable notion of a world free of nuclear weapons. It‟s largely a replay of the Keating Government‟s futile Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. A Coalition government would re-consider whether this body makes any useful contribution to Australia‟s non-proliferation objectives.

Abbott’s last sentence “Australia’s non-proliferation objectives” seem an endorsement of the goal, but he regards the Canberra Commission as futile and the new ICNND little better. Yet Australia really doesn’t have many other good options if it is to actually pursue such an objective. Abbott shouldn’t be expected to have read the ICNND (I havn’t fully!), but his Foreign Minister & advisors ought to know that the idea of a nuclear free world is a very minor part of a report whose main focus is on action in 2010 and through till 2020. Likewise Abbott correctly notes that the Howard Government, like Rudd today, made a bid for a UN seat (he deserves brownie points for leaving this in) however he derides it as “all for an uncertain purpose other than a nebulous sense of temporarily enhanced international status”. Surely if Australia is to ensure we are not “oblivious to the big issues of the wider world” and going to link our national security interests with our values a UN seat is a valuable opportunity to do so.

While the opposition is unlikely to try and use foreign policy as part of their election campaign, there are two differences between Rudd & Abbott where I think Abbott has the better position: First Abbott should be applauded for calling for the Rudd government to increase its troops in Afghanistan if only to take responsibility for our own security in the Oruzgan province. Secondly, Abbott rightly chides the Rudd government for its refusal to sell uranium to India. Though this is offput by the claim that: ‘The Obama Government in America has accepted that India could not sign the NPT (because it possesses nuclear weapons)’. In fact all five security council nuclear states, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China, have signed the NPT. Possessing nuclear weapons doesn’t prevent you signing, but rather not accepting the verification & audit process. Still Abbott should be applauded as India is a careful, non-proliferating country and selling uranium to India is not only good business, but will help patch over an important but troubled relationship between our two countries.

As The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen notes, this was a ‘safe’ speech which seemed largely dedicated to defending the Howard government. Very rarely did Abbott venture to say how a Coalition government would do things differently to Rudd, and where he did, it was entirely in line with Howard’s previous choices. Pleasantly this seems to have lent the speech a positive tone (at least in the reading), with Abbott almost unwilling to criticize Rudd. Certainly the harsher lines of his foreign affairs ministers were absent. And to his great credit, he actually tackled foreign policy issues, instead of just using the speech to talk about boat people (as happened while Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was present in the House of Representatives).

It’s great to see Abbott finally talking about foreign policy and security issues, and I recommend everyone interested takes the few minutes to read it in full. But you can sense his discomfort with some of the material, and the inherent contradiction between wanting an Australia that involves itself in global issues and promotes its values, while denigrating anything that goes beyond a cautious realist framework is never addressed. Like Howard in 1995 or George Bush in 2000, you can win office without a strong background in foreign policy, but both men quickly appointed expert advisors to help them through it. That act of delegation, rather than knowing the unner details of the NPT treaty will be the real test of Abbott’s leadership in foreign policy in the lead up to the 2010 election.

Update: Peter Hartcher stresses that now both parties are committed to promoting values ie norm entrepreneurship, while Danniel Flitton argues Abbott’s talk of an anglosphere is outdated and presents a false choice between bilateral and multilateral ties.

The rise of the seniors party

All political parties like to try and appeal to specific demographic groups, the Greens especially target the young, ALP its younger, outer suburbs ‘working families’. The Coalition is however making a pitch for the biggest of them all: Seniors

No more dole, Tony Abbott warns the under-30s
EXCLUSIVE: Andrew Burrell From: The Australian April 21, 2010 12:00AM
TONY Abbott has proposed banning the dole for people under 30 in a bid to entice the unemployed to head west and fill massive skill shortages in the booming resources sector.
The Opposition Leader made the controversial remarks during a two-hour meeting with about 15 senior resources industry leaders in Perth on Monday night.
Mr Abbott told the roundtable briefing he believed stopping dole payments to able-bodied young people would take pressure off the welfare system and reduce the need to bring in large numbers of skilled migrants to staff mining projects.
Six of the attendees confirmed yesterday that Mr Abbott had raised the idea of banning welfare payments for young people to encourage them to fill the thousands of jobs emerging in states such as Western Australia and Queensland.
“He said he was thinking more and more about it, with a view to formulating something on it,” said one of the participants, who asked not to be named. Another recalled: “He definitely said it was something he was considering as a policy.”
A third executive said: “It certainly wasn’t a throwaway line. He brought up the issue twice during the meeting.”

This is partially overbearing paternalism of the sort Abbott first championed with his work for the dole scheme back in 1999/2000, and partly a desperate (and unworkable) attempt to find a local solution to the skills shortage given his party’s desire to cut back on migration, but it should also be seen as a bold pitch to position the Liberal Party as The Seniors Party. And why wouldn’t you:

From the Treasury Dept:
In 1970-71, 31 per cent of the population was aged 15 years or younger, while by 2001-02 this proportion had dropped to 22 per cent. The proportion of Australia’s population aged over 65 years has grown from 8 per cent in 1970-71 to 13 per cent in 2001-02. The IGR projects that over the next 40 years, the proportion of the population over 65 years will almost double to around 25 per cent. At the same time, growth in the population of traditional workforce age is expected to slow to almost zero. This is a permanent change. Barring an unprecedented change in fertility rates, the age structure of the population is likely to stabilise with a far higher proportion of older Australians.

Via Pollytic’s Demographics bar we can see the Coalition already captures 53% of the vote of those 55+, but with that group doubling in size (and there being no tests for mental competency before voting for the elderly) locking them in now ensures long term political gain.

One of the virtues of having two major parties (and part of the reason I still strongly defend the system) is that it forces both parties to govern ‘for all of us’ to use the Coalitions 1996 slogan. But as one age group bulges in relative size, there comes the temptation to focus on that group first and foremost. It probably won’t change its name, but this policy to me signals a sign the Liberal Party is aiming to become The Seniors Party. Done clumsily this could rebound (as I think Abbott’s paternalism here will), but in the hands of a skillful operator it could prove a significant shift in the image and appeals of our parties, even if both have already been lavashing seniors for a fair while (trying to rise house prices, increased pensions, one off election time handouts etc). This may be the future of the Conservative side of politics. Having flirted with economic rationalism from 1977 to 2007 (no-coincidence the period John Howard was a major influence in the party), it seems now to be retreating to protectionist, primary industry focused insular economics and social policy. They will be the party of the closed Australia. In attitude, economics & border.

Then again the leaders in this may well have been The Nationals, just check out their latest advertisement (Below the Fold). Their is a token minority in the add, but their pitch is aimed almost entirely to the elderly & white.

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What is the Coalition’s foreign policy?

There is a good piece in this mornings Canberra Times (no online copy) by the up & coming Australian academic Carl Ungerer arguing that the debate about foreign policy has effectively been forgotten, with even the arguments about boat people reduced to simply questions of Australian control, without international or regional reference.

Ungerer lays much of the blame for this at the feet of the Liberal Party, and it’s a fair cop. A look at the National Security page on the Liberal party homepage is almost exclusively focused on immigration and border protection (against migrants). Likewise when the President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke before the Australian Parliament, the only topic the leader of the Opposition raised was that of asylum seekers. Obviously Indonesia is critical to that question, but issues such as when Indonesia will pass laws criminalising people smuggling (as the Howard government convinced much of the region to do in 2002-2006) were entirely absent.

The media must also wear some blame, given the way they let economics crowd out all other issues. Economics is critical, but every Australian government since time immemorial has said national security is the primary role of government.

While a February Newspoll showed that the Rudd government was slightly behind on national security, the latest Essential Report (PDF) presents a very different story) when people are asked specifically about foreign policy (H/T Crikey):

The Prime Minister scores strongly in terms of approval of his handling of foreign relations, with 50% approving and 32% disapproving, although the result tends to follow party lines. Labor also holds a strong lead (41-27%) over the Coalition in terms of who is trusted more on handling foreign affairs, with 22% saying no difference — suggesting the Howard Government’s strong record on foreign relations and national security has faded from memory…. Voters’ responses on individual countries also suggests why the Government has developed a strong reputation on foreign affairs. Asked how important relations with a number of countries were, 59% said close relations with the United States were very important, 56% said New Zealand and 51% said China. While the Rudd Government has had difficulties in its relationship with Beijing, it has also been associated with increased Chinese investment and the Prime Minister’s personal connections with the country. Rudd also quickly established a good relationship with President Obama, especially through the GFC and the establishment of the G20 as the primary international economic grouping.Moreover, 33% of voters actually want Australia to have a closer relationship with China

One explanation for this shift may be the loss of Malcolm Turnbull who had a much more worldly image than the more parochial Abbott, but primarily it seems the mere fact Rudd brings both experience and gets to daily implement foreign policy (even if commentators are only giving him about a B+), along with the noted gap in interest let alone policy by the opposition which have lead to this clear result. Labor will also be hoping that with Fitzgibbon’s resignation from Defence fading, and recent changes to slow the influx of boat people will further cement their dominance.

The only really odd part is that with such dominance and the coalition showing no ability to fight back, why isn’t Rudd doing even more to attack the coalition on such issues. Obviously he ought not go as far as Keating did to Howard in 1996 by claiming Asia wont work with Abbott, but he can suggest that only he would be able to extract the most benefit for Australia from our regional links due to his stronger knowledge of the region.

Meanwhile, Rudd is far from bulletproof on this. He hasn’t -yet-dedicated the resources to the role he has endorsed for Australia as a ‘creative middle power’, and his goals sometimes clash, His desire to stop whaling has hurt the relationship with the Japanese, which is crucial to help his vision of a new Asia Pacific Community; meanwhile his relationship with China is even harder due to his attempt to earn a UN seat. These are worthy goals, but his overall competence could be challenged. Let’s hope Abbott & Bishops policy boffins are paying attention and writing a policy displaying at least some level of overall strategic thought to deliver prior to the election (And with the highly capable former International Relations academic Senator Russel Trood in their ranks its a crime the Coalition has been so woeful and quiet on foreign policy issues). But they’ll need to hurry as time is surely running out and public perceptions solidifying.

The mis-steps of a young romeo named Tony

In many ways John Howard governed like a man with a wife (business) and a mistress (populist conservatives). This charming little solicitor from sydney was surprisingly adept at keeping his two partners happy, ensuring they were kept well apart, and each receiving equal, though carefully chosen presents. Of course his wife and mistress knew of each other (how could they not), but they forgave him, so long as he got the anniversaries right.

In 1998 Howard gave the big present to the wife via a GST, while his temperamental mistress flirted with a firery red-head from Queensland. Some begging on his part, and the smooth flow of cheaper petrol however saw the mistress returning to his embrace. In 2001, he shifted gears and the mistress got the big present: a gift wrapped Pacific Solution. The wife was consoled with an item that cost more but didn’t sparkle so bright: a healthy stock-portfolio and significant overall rises in migration levels. All was right in his happy little world, with three being perfect company. 2004 was perhaps the easiest anniversary of them all, as an arrogant young knight beat on the doors and stomped around outside, sending both partners running into his protecting arms. Of course, such happiness was not to last, and the once spritely charmer with lush eye-brows begun to tire. Before he left for that eternity in the members stand at the cricket, he decided to pass on the phone numbers of his two lovers & some tips to a young apprentice he had been grooming named Tony. While others desperately bid for his place, he was sure that if any man could look after his beloveds it would be Tony.

Only our young would-be Romeo, now finally able to take his place, has forgotten the old mans wise words and gotten himself utterly entranced by the mistress. Despite the old mans concern, Tony has seemingly forgotten the former wife and set off to shower the mistress with gifts. First offering her paid time off to manage any kids, and now a quieter environment with far less noisy neighbors. Meanwhile he has redoubled his efforts to keep himself fit and healthy, to ensure the mistress see’s his virility. She has, and is impressed.

But watching from the up-story apartment window, the ex-wife has noticed. She’s not quite the bombshell she once was, and the legacy of a near-stroke in 2008 still stings. But she was here first, and still to her mind is the prettiest of them all. More importantly she also has the old mans fortune and can give it to whoever she chooses.

Not that she thinks much of Tony’s rival, a nerdy suitor by the name of Kevin. She had largely ignored his early claims of fidelity, (wisely) as that too was broken in 2008, though he still claims it was for her own good. Yet as she watches a Lycra-clad Tony stretch and limber himself up, still trying to impress the younger mistress, she turns over the paper with Kevin’s number on it. Maybe she should give him a call, he after all has keys to a Bentley, and all Tony can offer her is his rotten bike. Yes, she will call him, but maybe after one more Gin & Tonic, after all, the sun is still up in the land of the lucky country.

The physicality of leadership

I’m currently reading the autobiography of Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. If Roosevelt is known for anything these days, and it’s inescapable in his book, it was his enthusiasm for the active life. He was a solider, hunter, naturalist and mountaineer, constantly pushing himself to keep going throughout life. In 1913, 5 years after leaving the White House, and aged 53 he went on a 1000km exploration charting rivers through the jungles of South America. He died some years later in part due to ill health caused by the trip, but no better marker of his identity in the publics mind can be found than the comment by the US vice president at the time that “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” Roosevelt’s political and philosophical legacy isn’t that relevant anymore (though an early conservationist and he supported Health Care reform in his ‘Bull Moose’ run for the White House), but he still excites the imagination of many because, he offers a link to that original tribal idea of the leader as owed to the toughest, biggest man in the village. Yet how relevant is this idea of leadership today?
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The openly cynical conviction politician

One thing to like about Tony Abbott is that he has a clear set of beliefs and is in politics because he wants to be the engine that implements these views. His numerous “gaffes” (in the eyes of the media) are generally just cases of him saying what he believes when it’s impolitic rather than actual mistakes. Therefore, with his advisors surely very keen to play up this image of a straight shooting man, it was odd to see two significant counter-examples on Four Corners last night
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The return of the DLP

In 1954, the ALP split for the third time in its history, with communism, or rather anti-communism being the issue. Herbert ‘doc’ Evatt was not capable of leading the Labor members at that time and he had lost the support of ALP voters after their third straight election loss. Post-war re-configurations of Australian society and a range of distorted personalities (Evatt & B.A Santamaria) combined to split the ALP and keep the party out of power for another 18 years. The Democratic Labor Party while publicly influential never amounted to much electorally or in policy terms, but in a way they represented a strong strain of Australian political thought, one that in some (less divisive) ways is making its comeback today. No chance of a split exists, but it is not hard to see similar philosophical strains within both major political parties, between their conservative wings (for the ALP the workers/union base, for the Liberals a religious upper middle class) and their liberal wings (the ALP’s inner city aspirations and the Liberals business class). Both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are firmly members of their own party’s conservative classes, and indeed a longer running sub-stream of Australian Conservatism which found its clearest form in the DLP. They represent in many ways the return of the DLP.
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Conservatives get their thinking caps on

Tony Abbott in this morning’s Australian:

TONY Abbott has told his Coalition colleagues not to shy away from intellectual debate ahead of a policy roundtable in Canberra this Friday hosted by the Liberal Party’s think tank, the Menzies Research Centre.
A string of thinkers and public figures, including Noel Pearson, Peter Cosgrove, Alan Dupont and Ian Harper, as well as the former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold, will take part in the meeting, convened at the Liberal leader’s request. He told the meeting “some of the smartest and deepest thinkers in Australia” would attend the meeting, while making a gibe at Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit, convened in April 2008. “This is going to be our own mini-summit, but there’s not going to be a thousand people who have come along to agree with each other,” he said.

One slight problem 4 of the 5 “smartest and deepest thinkers” mentioned, attended Rudd’s 2020 Summit. Oops.

People reject Rudd’s competence on National Security

The press may be focused intently on the story of economics & climate change polling, but todays Newspoll has an even bigger surprise hidden:
Newspoll.com.au

The lead Howard developed over Labor shouldn’t be too surprising in 2006, only 5 years from the 9/11 attacks, 4 from Bali, 3 from the War in Iraq. National Security competence can’t be delivered in bite sized policy announcements, it comes through being competent when faced with issues major and minor.

However leaders can have an impact, when Kevin Rudd the Mandarin speaking diplomat and shadow foreign affairs minister became Opposition leader Howard’s numbers dropped 8 points and Labors rose 10*. Since then Labor has steadily gained, with only a wobble just before the election (with the Coalition doing their best to make security an issue given that economics wasn’t working so well). But take a look at the latest results, where Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop(Shadow Foreign Affairs), & David Johnston(Shadow Defence) have gained a 6 point lead over Labor. Amazing. It’s Labors highest showing (just), but clearly many have switched back to the coalition from uncommitted, meaning it’s a positive switch towards the coalition.

I’m not sure the reasons why. Fitzgibbon is long enough gone from Defence (save the odd newspaper scandal) to be replaced by the stately Faulkner. Smith is a competent foreign minister and Rudd has had a mixed but certainly highly competent record. Labor has pulled troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan/The War on Terror is at least no worse than last year, perhaps even better & the Defence White paper pretty run of the mill. While Johnson has a long standing interest in this area he is unknown to the public, and Bishop only took this job because she was dumped from shadow treasurer. The comparison is most stark at the leadership level where you’d assume attention is focused. Rudd’s main focus after the GFC was international/regional issues, while Abbott seems yet to have addressed the issues as Opposition leader and devotes only 5 pages out of his 200 page book on the issue.

So why the drop? And what is giving the coalition such a strong showing?

* That the public saw Kevin Rudd as more capable on National Security issues over Kim ‘the bomber’ Beazley does make you ponder slightly about the public’s judgement.

A Servant of Two Masters

It’s always interesting watching politicians advocate for those who they don’t agree with or in some cases even like. It’s a necessary evil in politics, but still revealing. As a budding student journalist I twice interviewed Bob McMullan, once as Shadow Treasurer under Crean, where he pushed that Crean was a good centrist leader, and once when he was a backbencher with Mark Latham his boss, where again I was told that Latham was a good centrist leader. The Latham Diaries later revealed that by this point Latham had fallen out with most of his colleagues, especially McMullan.

It’s interesting therefore to read George Brandis’ excellent piece on Tony Abbott in todays Oz. Brandis was one of the last supporters of Turnbull, and advocated last year for the Liberal Party to go in a very different direction to Abbott’s ideal, but he puts up a good defence of his new boss (Much like in 2003 when Brandis was about the only Liberal I heard mount a decent argument in parliament in defence of the soon to be ex-Governor General Peter Hollingsworth).
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Warning: Turbulence ahead

I’ve deliberately not been blogginig as much on domestic politics lately because it seems to me to have entered a swirling phase where clear outlines of either camps positions, strengths, weaknesses and direction are largely obscured. The reasons for these are many, the ‘inevitable’ ETS has collapsed, the GFC has finally passed having distracted the Rudd government from its agenda for its first 18 months, and most of all, Tony Abbott has taken over the leadership, giving the press gallery the long awaited contest they have been seeking.

Much like the early months of Mark Latham in 04 or Sarah Palin as VP candidate in the USA, Abbott’s election has given his base a 12 can injection of Red Bull, while the general public are still trying to work out what they think of the bloke. What passes for conventional wisdom in the press about Abbott is still largely based on snap reactions to him, rather than cultivated analysis of him as a leader. Take this missive from Laurie Oakes:
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It’s not just porn: Net filter will limit culture and public debate

I had such high hopes for Stephen Conroy as Communications Minister. After the corruption of Richard-what free tv-Alston and luddite Coonan (not to mention the decidedly not tech-savy Howard), Conroy seemed a breath of fresh air. Having watched him operate in several years of Estimates hearings, he clearly knew his way around a PC Whilst asking questions to officials (when in opposition) he often was able to quickly call up relevant data to challenge claims made by wayward or mis-informed ministers or their public servants. His boss may have been a bit socially conservative, but he could tweet & sms easily. That Conroy under Rudd’s direction has taken Australia into such a embarassing and frankly authoritarian direction online is therefore a great shame.
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Abbott succumbs to the stereotype

When Abbott took over, I argued that he would surprise many for the moderateness of his views. The public, I thought would get a chance to re-examine him, but it seems a combination of clumsy language on Abbott’s behalf, and a bored media are going to ensure he will be back to the caricatured mad monk before the month is out. Take this piece from The Australian:

Tony Abbott warns women against sex before marriage
TONY Abbott urges women to save their virginity for marriage and reveals mixed feelings about contraception in a new interview.

After conducting a charm offensive over the summer break and rejecting suggestions his conservative social views were a turnoff to women, the Liberal leader has been subjected to a grilling in the next edition of the Australian Women’s Weekly about his views on sex, marriage and his own daughters’ virginity.

The new Liberal leader is understood to have suggested men and women should try and adhere to “the rules” when it comes to sex before marriage and when they can’t he has conceded they should use contraception.

Which isn’t that far from what he said in 2005 “they[his daughters] should be very careful about doing things that they might regret and doing things that might in the long run cause them to have less self respect and less respect for others than might be the case”, which is also in line with what he says in his book.

It’s also not far from what every father has said to their kids since time immortal (and a lot more accepting than most would have been).Yet the instant reaction from the ALP, Greens, womens groups and even the conservative press is to tag anyone who even addresses the issue of contraception, or abortion as an invasive reactionary.
I’m in two minds about this, given my own liberal views on the importance of individual freedom, and arbitrariness of what conservatives claim are the “rules”, on the other hand, Abbott like all public figures ought to speak on important issues, and we ought to be able to have an open discussion about it. (Some might call this the burden of political correctness at work, but its a feather weight if that). Radically, he answered a question when asked, and advocated views that few would disagree with, and yet he has suffered two days plus of grief for it. The fault is partly his for clumsy language, but also because people are seeing the stereotype at work instead of what was actually said.

On Immigration, a similar story was visible over the weekend. A poor choice of words and political strategy by Abbott and the nature of the news beast:

Obey the law at least, Abbott tells migrants

Speaking at a dinner hosted by the Australia Day Council in Melbourne, Mr Abbott said Australians were worried about the rise in the number of boat people, the ability of migrants to obey the law and the strain new arrivals put on the nation’s resources….Migrants would be more popular if minority leaders encouraged them to adopt more mainstream values and abide by the law, he said. ”The inescapable minimum that we insist upon is obedience to the law,” Mr Abbott said. ”It would help to bolster public support for immigration and acceptance of social diversity if more minority leaders were as ready to show to mainstream Australian values the respect they demand of their own.”

Abbott’s claims here are no more than any Prime Minister from Post-WW2 has said. Indeed was anyone at any doubt that following the law was a requirement of citizenship? Perhaps the migrants of whom 96% passed the citizenship test were unaware of this basic fact. Abbott’s point is therefore both true but also banal. From the mouth of Rudd such words would have gone entirely un-noticed, but when Abbott stumbles in with such pointless claims, he makes himself out to being a intolerant fool. This is not some devils curl of the tongue to entice the former one-nation voters, Abbott is simply being in artful & bland, whilst re-enforcing a stereotype that is certainly wrong on immigration (none in the Coalition did more to bring down One-Nation than he) and damaging. Amazingly in the same speech Abbott even claims “The last thing that any Australian should want is to make recent immigrants feel unwelcome in their new country,”, yet his speeches and more importantly the media reports of these will if anything add to that impression. It’s an own goal rhetorically.

Abbott is rather progressive for a conservative Christian on issues of contraception, abortion and immigration. Yet though his first month in the job has been solid, he has done little to counter the image once built up on him, which is allowing a bored press and an only half-observant public to see his new actions through the old cut out image they held for him. The picture might not yet fully fit within the lines (esp his speeches on Aboriginal affairs and the Environment), but it still seems close enough. Like “headkicker” Latham who surprised many with his talk of reading to preschool kids, or “nerdbot” Rudd with his emotive talk about growing up poor & in the country, Abbott needs a way to break the stereotype that was in place as a minister, briefly lifted when he took over but is now slowly dropping back down into place over him.

While I take a more liberal line than him on such issues (I’m not sure that ones virginity is that important, and a focus on it not only slightly creepy but a hold over from negotiations for arranged marriages), Tony Abbott should be applauded for his willingness to speak up on such important social issues and being willing to directly answer the question. Yet it’s not just spur of the moment choices that are getting him in trouble, the same lack of political strategy is evident in his prepared speeches such as on immigration. Abbott & coalition strategists need to work quickly on shaking up how the press and public see him, otherwise this election will be an embarrassing rout, with the liberal leader unheard and ignored for the rest of the year (The same fate his mentor Howard suffered during 2007).

Of new media and new politics

In an otherwise interesting article on the role of new media and the Rudd Government, George Megalogenis (is there a better journalist working today?) writes:

To paraphrase Keating, when the media changes, so does the government. The wireless age marked the transition from Ben Chifley to Robert Menzies at the end of the 1940s. The colour TV age covered the shift to Gough Whitlam in the early 70s and, more tellingly, from Malcolm Fraser to Hawke in the 80s. The talkback radio age saw Howard eclipse Keating in the 90s. Now we are in the digital age, which began in 2007 when the young nerd, Rudd, trumped the old nerd, Howard.

That’s right, but precisely backwards. It is the leaders ability to utilise media that shapes its importance and their own dominance. Menzies was an undisputed king of TV when it first came in, just as FDR was able to make radio broadcasts his personal domain. Talk Radio wasn’t a new technology for the 1990’s, Howard simply returned to it as a medium in which his natural skills worked best, and that drove attention to it. Contra Megalogenis I don’t think that Rudd has made great use of twitter/blogs/websites, however he has at least done a damn sight better than the conservatives, and that matters (Obama’s advisors on the other hand made his website a key element of their electoral strategy).

There has always been a very strong link between journalists and politicians. Not in a biased way, but as a shared interest in the media and medium. Our second PM Alfred Deakin was a journalist & correspondent his whole life, as was Henry Parkes, Chris Watson, John Curtin, Malcolm Turnbull and his successor Tony Abbott. Our current PM wasn’t a journalist, but he spent his years in opposition being available for (if not inviting) media interviews at any time day or night. Just as you can’t be a good carpenter if you can’t handle a saw, or a good surgeon if you can’t weild a knife, a strength in using emerging media forms is critical to political success. I don’t see anyone in the current parliament who has a great handle on the new technology (here I think blogs have more potential than twitter), but Turnbull and Rudd both show at least a keen awareness. (As does Kate Lundy & Joe Hockey) Whoever does, is likely to become the dominant figure of the next 20 years. Let’s hope Abbott has some good new media advisors, but given his twitter account has only 7 (utterly boring) entries since becoming leader, it doesn’t seem likely.

Can Nerds deliver wedgies?

Our Prime Minister is by nature a conservative man. Nothing wrong with that, in fact it by and large contributed to his victory over John Howard where others before him such as Latham had tried and failed. Yet Rudd now faces an opponent who is seen as not just a common sense conservatie, ie a pragmatic cautious man (as Howard managed to claim for himself), but as a capital C Conservative, nay regressive who wants social change towards a long past (if ever existing) ideal.

Labor spent much of the 1990’s seeing Howard as a reactionary, while the public didn’t, but it might work with Tony Abbott. To be fair to Abbott, he isn’t anything like the theocons in the USA, and he is resigned to being in a minority and seeks mainly to argue for, rather than legislate his views on social morality and conservatism. However his election to the liberal party leadership represents a substantial opportunity for progressives.

The Labor party has already set about calling Abbott and crew ‘extremists’ (esp on climate change) but this is a ham-fisted way of making their point given the low level of public and media attention. It’s not that these groups arn’t paying attention, its just that this kind of language has been done to death and generally passes the ears unheard.

The future for Tony Abbott ?

Instead Rudd needs a policy challenge, to force Abbott to show his real views. An issue where he either says what he believes, alienating a public majority, or he goes along with Rudd’s policy, disenfranchising some of his core base. In short, it’s now the perfect time for Rudd to return the favour of 2001 and deliver a rather liberal wedgie to the Coalition, of the sort that wasn’t too viable against Howard, Nelson or Turnbull.

Issues that might play well include: Abortion funding and access (bringing it into federal control as a pre-cursor to full takeovers), relaxation of some drug laws, such as decriminalizing marijuana (as occurring in the US, and somewhat in the ACT), increased flexibility for euthanasia, granting civil unions nation wide (having already agreed to accept it in the ACT), or further opening up the country for foreign investment. The latter would alienate labor from some rural electorates, but could help divest a lot of economic liberal voters/few remaining city voters from the Coalition to Labors waiting hands. (I’d be keen to hear any readers suggestions of other issues that fit)

None of these are critical pressing issues, but each represents good policy and good politics. Too much was made of Howard’s wedge efforts against Labor, and they came to be seen as a dirty tactic (or at least a smelly one). But if Labor is implementing good policy that simply forces the opposition to choose between it’s core ideology and being in line with the mainstream, then there is nothing wrong with the approach.

More than that, it also offers progressives a way to shape an influential role within the Rudd government. This is a very cautious, poll driven government. So any policy proposed to it for implementation needs to be able to deliver strong electoral benefits. If progressives can offer policy that delivers votes for the government now, then it will create goodwill and credibility for advocating more significant and controversial reform in the future.

Choosing the specific issue and nature of the legislation will need careful polling and focus grouping, but it’s worth a trial now, early in the year before the defenses are re-erected for the years political combat. With luck, Labor might well get Abbott to simply respond at a door stop to a spreading rumor of new labor policy, without carefully organising his response. At worst, the effort will let Labor see how Abbott responds to new issues (does he wait, or will he just go ahead with his own response, and how will his independence play to his divided party room). At best, it gives Labor the chance to directly define Abbott as well outside the mainstream, and implement some good progressive policy.