Election Interpreter 2013
Hugh White's typically perceptive column on Tony Abbott argues that the old Howard slogan about Australia not having to choose between the US and China never really reflected Howard's diplomacy and has in any case been made redundant by the economic growth and growing assertiveness of China. Abbott will need to adapt to changing circumstances, but is he capable of it? Hugh is undecided:
There are two kinds of conservatism. The serious intellectual conservatism championed by Edmund Burke balances desire to preserve our inherited institutions and polices against the imperative to adapt to new circumstances. The port-drinking, fox-hunting conservatism of the traditional Tory just resists all change as bad. We still do not know which kind of conservative Abbott really is.
The second type of conservative Hugh describes here is really a reactionary, and Abbott is not one of those, whatever his critics might say. But I suspect Hugh's worries about Abbott in this area are fueled by Abbott's regular and fulsome tributes to the US-Australia alliance (last year Abbott went so far as to say that 'few Australians would regard America as a foreign country'), and by quotes like this, from Battlelines:
Although China is likely to become even stronger in the years ahead, this may not mean much change for Australia's international relationships or foreign policy priorities.
If it's possible to drink port with one's head in the sand, then that's what Abbott is doing here. As Hugh says in his column, 'The rise of China is the biggest shift in Australia's strategic environment in more than a century.' The notion that such an epochal shift 'may not mean much' for our place in the world is just not credible. But then there is this, also from Battlelines:
Far from just slowing and moderating the pace of change, a political conservative can promote change, provided it's to realise a country's best values and aspirations.
A political conservative normally only changes what has to be changed, makes the change conform as far as possible to established principles, and afterwards maintains that nothing much has really changed at all.
On Hugh's reading, this describes almost exactly what the Howard Government did with its China policy: a gradual shift to accommodate China that was barely noticed in Washington or at home. Perhaps Tony Abbott did not notice either.
What Hugh leaves out of his definition of Burkean conservatism is its strong aversion to ideology of all kinds. For conservatives, ideology is merely 'technical knowledge', a caricature or a crude abridgement of centuries of political practice and tradition, but which tries to divorce itself from the specific circumstances out of which it was inspired to offer a universal blueprint for governance. The French revolutionaries, for instance, congratulated themselves on having liberated France from centuries of stultifying tradition, when in fact they had only submitted to a crudely codified version of it. Critically, the conservative case against ideology is not just a criticism of the Left, but of the ideological style of politics as a whole. As Michael Oakeshott (one of Tony Abbott's favourites) said of Friedrich Hayek's free-market ideas: 'A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.'
What concerns me is that the US alliance has become an ideology in Australian politics.
It has ceased to be just a practical arrangement for the mutual benefit of two sovereign states, or a signal of the close cultural and historical ties between Australia and the US. It has become an idée fixe, with neither side of politics capable of articulating a vision for Australian foreign policy that does not presume an ever-closer relationship. In Australia, the alliance seems to have become divorced from circumstance and history. But in that guise, it becomes an article of faith, impossible to reform and impervious to the tide of history. It is more likely to crack than bend.