Twirling towards freedom

Killing them softly: The Coalition's foreign policy adventures

For the past week or so the world has been commemorating 50 years since President John F Kennedy was assassinated. I’ve read and heard a lot about Kennedy recently, that he was the first truly modern president, one who campaigned on style and charisma, his tragic death transforming him from a charismatic, womanising, amphetamine addict into a liberal martyr. Certain soundbites, fragments of his speeches, have been enshrined in the global culture; the ‘Ask Not’ inaugural speech and his address to Berlin. There’s one phrase though, that jumps out at me as being particularly resonant today, “Domestic policy can only defeat us, foreign policy can kill us.”

Australian liberals started this week basking in schadenfruede with the news that Tony Abbott’s approval rating was at a record low for a first term prime minister. The honeymoon is over. The steep decline in support is a comeuppance for a government that ran a bellicose and pugilistic election campaign on a slogan that pre-supposed the co-operation of Indonesia. If it was ever on the table, it is now decidedly off in the wake of revelations that our government tapped the phone of the Indonesian President and his wife.

Most experts, including Lowy Institute Distinguished International Fellow Kurt Campbell, acknowledge that spying is part of modern diplomacy, but so is appearing apologetic when caught so that the aggrieved nation can save face.  President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had demanded that Abbott commit to a spying ‘code of ethics’ which, while probably largely symbolic, Abbott has refused to do. Abbott has said, in a letter to the President, that “Australia would not do anything in the future,” that would cause harm or damage to Indonesia. If this is truly the case, why not display some simple manners and commit to the code? Why organise a “secret meeting” to plan a “covert operation” to have a “special envoy,” all to send a fucking letter? As the Daily Telegraph gushes, “The key to the plan was to have the letter delivered unobtrusively, but with maximum effect.” There’s no denying this ridiculous pageantry has had an effect, but it’s unlikely to be the one Abbott intended.

This Prime Minister, who once said that it was better to ask for forgiveness than seek permission, will now do neither.  But in refusing to go through the motions of contrition he’s scuttled any hope of Indonesia’s help in stopping people smuggling operations. At home, domestic tensions are increasing. There’s frustration from the right, as the government appears to have fumbled naval security, and dismay from the left, as Abbott has apparently condoned torture in Sri Lanka. Then there’s the growing discontent from the public and the media about Scott Morrison’s now all too familiar blustering arrogance in the face of any questions relating to asylum seekers.

The issue of the boats is turning out to be much more complicated that the Coalition could have reckoned from the pulpit of the opposition. There, they conflated domestic and foreign policy to harm Labor, and now with the Coalition up on the hill, it’s killing them. And as this week’s news shows, it’s not only our relations with Indonesia that are in peril. Next stop, China. 

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.


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