Twirling towards freedom

The Good, the Bad and the Abbott

In the dying days of the 2013 Federal Election campaign, Tony Abbott appeared on the ABC’s 7.30 to clarify what he meant when he’d earlier characterised the Syria conflict as “baddies versus baddies.”

This sound bite, terrifyingly reductive as it is, wasn’t what worried me. The concern crept in when Abbott went on to say that Australia “shouldn’t get ideas above our station.” The phrase echoes an out-dated worldview of Australia as a faithful servant in the empire that Abbott was born and raised in, an empire whose relevance to Australia’s international relations continues to wane. 

Abbott expressed contrition over involvement in other Middle Eastern conflicts, and signalled that if he won the prime ministership, Australia would take a cautious approach to international affairs because “if we break something, we own it.”

It’s a sensible, down-to-earth sentiment but one which the Coalition is now having trouble realising in the real world. One of the new prime minister’s first acts on the international stage was to fly to Indonesia to apologise for the “stop the boats” parochialism which had helped get him elected at the cost of strained relations with Jakarta.

I happened to be in Jakarta at the same time as the Australian diplomatic mission, and the tone of the papers there was one of bemused acceptance. Abbott hadn’t called anyone a “baddy” or spruiked the virtues of full body contact to a group of schoolgirls while wearing a lapel mic. The Indonesian press was largely, pleasantly surprised at the statesman-like behaviour.

Back home, despite some grumbling in the local media about Abbott quietly snuffing out his fire and brimstone on the boats and drawing a curtain of silence over the whole issue, commentators were generally relieved that he hadn’t managed to insult any major leaders, excluding, of course, the old cuddle pot Vladimir Putin.

The problem is that the minute he gets on home soil, Abbott can’t resist making grand sweeping statements, his own “non-core promises” – even if these are at odds with our foreign policy.

Raoul Heinrichs, of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University, wrote an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Age analysing the ways in which Abbott’s domestic rhetoric is counterintuitive to his stated international aims. By setting a time limit on trade agreements, Abbott has effectively painted Australia into a corner and queered the deal with China, even while he’s made moves to antagonise and alienate the superpower with the fawning declaration that Japan is “Australia’s best friend in Asia.” It’s the kind of blokey, down-to-earth Abbottism that rings true enough in Australia, but does nothing to sooth escalating tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, nor aid Australia’s navigation of them.

The new government is learning that when you say things in the international arena, outside of the nurturing embrace of the Murdoch press, they have ramifications. In opposition, Abbott made the most of his ability to wield stock phrases and simple, concise messages in clear English. It was his chief strength as a journalist, and his most valuable asset as a politician, even if it allowed his critics to paint him as a simpleton.

As a world leader, Abbott continues to do what he’s good at, and can’t seem to get away from these big, empty, didactic, rhetoric-as-fact statements: “goodies” and “baddies” and “best friends” and, by extension, “worst enemies.”

The prime minister, with his penchant for dressups, has looked equally at home as a cyclist, fireman, factory worker, ADF cadet, soldier and iron man, seems a little underwhelming in his latest guise. As a world leader, it couldn’t hurt him to be cautious in international affairs. Abbott is already straining Australia’s relations with Asia and if they break, then truly, we will have to own it. 

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.

@michaelamcguire

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