Those who have been uncomfortable at the prospect of an Abbott-led foreign policy may already consider their fears, which Kevin Rudd played on during the last election campaign (‘If you have doubts about Mr Abbott's ability to handle complex national security and international relations questions, then don't vote for him.’) confirmed.
Even before the recent difficulties with Indonesia and the controversy over Australia's stance on China's Air Defence Identification Zone, Raoul Heinrichs characterised Prime Minister Abbott as lurching from one diplomatic mistake to another – on Indonesia, Japan and trade negotiations with China. His verdict: a ‘PM stumbling around the international stage’.
Very few prime ministers come into the role with any experience or existing interest in international affairs, making it difficult to predict how a new prime minister will respond to the international demands of the role. But if history is any guide, it’s likely that current fears about Abbott are likely to be exaggerated.
Take the case of John Howard. During his early period as prime minister he was criticised for perceived gaffes on international issues. During the election campaign, Paul Keating famously claimed that Asian leaders ‘will not deal with him’. But over the next eleven and a half years, deal with him they did, in many cases very productively.
Howard's critics were flabbergasted by his success in building and maintaining relationships in Asia. Former Executive Director of the Lowy Institute Michael Wesley described this as the ‘Howard Paradox’: ‘How has a government that has been so rhetorically uncompromising in its relations with its neighbours, that has done so many things that critics have claimed would damage Australia’s relations with its region, managed to build such strong links with Asian countries?’
I wouldn’t bet against seeing an ‘Abbott Paradox’ unfold.
Michael Wesley explains the paradox of Howard’s unexpected success partly by the useful coincidence that Howard’s focus on bilateralism and trade resonated well with the needs of the time in Asia: ‘The Howard government’s bilateralism seems to have been appropriate to both location and time. As it came to office, multilateralism at both regional and global levels was entering a troubled period, leading many other countries to explore bilateral agreements’.
So the times suited him. It’s also fair to say that he learned on the job.
Similarly, Prime Minister Julia Gillard came to the role without a background in international issues. At her first international appearance, at the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit in Brussels, the Gillard was at pains to distinguish herself from her globe-trotting predecessor: ‘Foreign policy is not my passion. It’s not what I’ve spent my life doing...So yes, if I had a choice, I’d probably be more (comfortable) in a school watching kids learn to read in Australia than here in Brussels at international meetings.’
By the time Prime Minister Gillard attended the ASEM Summit in Vientiane two years later, there was a different tone, expressing pleasure that she would be meeting around 50 leaders, including from nine of Australia’s top ten trading partners, and taking credit for an impressive set of Australian foreign policy achievements: ‘Australia is going to be hosting the premier global entity in the world, the G20. Australia is becoming a member of the UN Security Council and Australia has a clear national plan for its own outlook for growth, which is the white paper that I delivered for Australia in this Asian Century’.
Gillard gave the impression of being comfortable in the role of foreign policy leader. Again, it could be argued that there was an element of happy coincidence that the issues Prime Minister Gillard cared most deeply about, such as jobs and growth, closely matched the international agenda of the time. This can be seen most clearly in Australia’s engagement in the G20.
Like Howard and Gillard before him, Prime Minister Abbott came to the top job without having previously expressed any strong interest in international issues. When Abbott set out his political manifesto in his book Battlelines, international issues did not rate a mention apart from the importance of maintaining strong alliances with Britain, the US and other Anglophone democracies. His two most prominent international speeches in opposition – in Washington and Beijing – could be seen as showing what Interpreter Editor Sam Roggeveen has described as a tendency to ‘Western/Anglosphere triumphalism’. It certainly means that Tony Abbott’s evolution as prime minister will be fascinating to watch.
If Prime Minister Abbott develops as much in the role as some of his predecessors, he’ll be forgiven his early missteps and the commentators of the future will be writing about the ‘Abbott Paradox’ or asking ‘how did someone of whom so little was expected achieve what he did?’