Election Interpreter 2013
1. Because he hasn't shown a great deal of policy radicalism in other spheres.
Despite Abbott's reputation as a fighter and hardliner, he hasn't picked too many policy fights with the Government or his own backers. A generous parental leave scheme is perhaps Abbott's biggest break from his own party's orthodoxy. You might regard the pledge to abolish carbon pricing as radical, but it is radicalism in the service of returning to a favoured status quo.
Also, keep in mind that Abbott has endorsed the same emissions target as the Government; he's just chosen a different means toward the same end. He's also effectively backed the Government's defence spending cuts, with only the vaguest of promises to increase it when the budget allows. And his party has forged a 'golden aid consensus' with the Labor Party.
2. Because he is a conservative.
Thanks to the Bush Administration, we've become used to thinking of conservatism as an aggressive and radical political force. And especially with a 'neo' in front of it, American conservatism was indeed a repudiation of steady-as-she-goes foreign policy (represented by the realists) in favour of a wholesale attempt to remake the Middle East through military force. It was, in fact, highly radical.
But as Waleed Aly shrewdly observed in The Monthly recently, that's not exactly Tony Abbott's idea of conservatism. Abbott belongs to a British tradition of conservatism (think Burke, Oakeshott, Scruton) which tends to be pragmatic and sceptical of political radicalism in all forms.
Now, against this we have to weigh the fact that Abbott was a strong supporter of the Iraq war, and he defended it in ways that would have found sympathy among neo-conservatives. That's a topic for a follow-up post.
3. Because he's inexperienced.
Abbott will be finding his feet as the nation's chief representative abroad. It will take time for him to gain confidence, as it did for his hero and mentor, John Howard. Until then, he will play it safe.
4. Because foreign policy won't be a high priority.
The fact that Abbott places a low priority on foreign policy is evidenced by how little he has said on the topic since becoming leader. He even resists attempts by the Government to 'internationalise' issues such as asylum seekers. It follows that the basic task Abbott will set his foreign policy team will be to maintain an even keel and not allow foreign policy to interfere with his government's priorities.
5. Because Abbott is a creature of the Liberal Party.
Another reason Abbott is unlikely to surprise us as a foreign policy leader is that he is so deeply aligned with the traditions of his party, including in foreign policy: a preference for bilateral diplomacy; scepticism toward (but pragmatic use of) multilateral institutions; strong allegiance to the US; and perhaps most importantly, a strong belief in the Howard formula that Australia does not face a choice between its history and its geography.
In other words, Abbott believes that China's rise (and the 'Asian century' more broadly) does not fundamentally challenge the regional strategic order or Australia's place in it. He sees strategic continuity in our future, not disruption.
Photo by Flickr user Troy Constable Photography.