21 October 2012

Failure to plan means planning to fail

The Coalition's response to Australia's victory in the UN Security Council vote showed a bunch of people with no short-term media strategy nor any longterm policy direction. They have had years to plan for this: not only for the vote itself, but the whole context of how Australian foreign policy generally accommodates a place on the UNSC, what the country is expected to do with it, and what happens to this country and its foreign policy once the term is over. What have they been doing?

Julie Bishop has squeezed in the odd trip to Jakarta in between choreographing parliamentary silly-buggers (probably a shorter distance from Perth than the trip to Canberra), but she's been in the job long enough to have a position - or at least have a statement ready. General Eisenhower had a speech written incase the D-Day landings had failed. President Nixon had a speech written incase the moon landings had failed. You can be sure Bishop, Abbott et al would have come out all guns blazing if the UNSC bid had failed.

It seems that we only engage distant nations, like those in Africa, when we want something from them - the Sydney Olympics, the FIFA World Cup 2022, and now this. It will be interesting to see what will happen when they want something from us. Neither Carr nor the Coalition, nor foreign policy sages in the MSM and beyond, talked much about that in the context of Australia as a global citizen.

When athletes like Anna Meares and Evan O'Hanlon won gold in London, theirs were not Labor victories - they were victories for Australia. Labor supporters of Kevin Rudd struck the right note when they praised "Aussie diplomacy". Foreign Minister Carr talked about Australia's reputation as a good global citizen, leaving the door open for the Coalition to build on their role in building that reputation - but no.

Abbott wittered on about cost, but the shadow treasurer didn't. Hockey made a frankly idiotic link to asylum seeker policy, which the shadow immigration minister didn't back up. Their publicity effort was a shambles, and bodes poorly for the Coalition election campaign. The buck stops with Abbott but this isn't his failure alone - it goes all the way down, Bishop, Hockey, Credlin, and into the so-called future of the Liberals with the much-touted but little proven Briggs and Frydenberg.

When Alexander Downer was appointed to a UN rapporteur role by the Rudd government, the journosphere position on it was bipartisanship, Rudd reaching out to the Coalition. The appointment was also a case of Rudd snookering the Coalition. If the Coalition was going to trash the UN, as is their wont, they would also have to trash the man who - for all his failings and shortcomings - has forgotten more about foreign policy than the rest of today's Coalition put together. Downer's advisers Jamie Briggs and Josh Frydenberg are in the Coalition party room today, and neither man has added much to the debate on what UNSC might mean to a Coalition government.

On the face of it, not a lot of votes are won or lost on the basis of foreign policy. Perceptions of its real importance are hidden by nebulous poll-jockey concepts like "approval ratings", "preferred Prime Minister" or "fitness to govern":
  • Mark Latham's decision to bring troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan looked rash and ill-considered, hurting him far more than the taxi driver incident;
  • Kim Beazley's whole career involved defence issues. In September 2001 he could have struck a middle course between supporting the US while standing against the demonisation of Muslim Australians, and insisting on civil liberties protections while allowing for security legislation to adapt to new technologies. He'd have been Prime Minister and lots of things would have been different;
  • Fraser made Hayden look like an amateur on foreign policy, as Holt did to Calwell;
  • McMahon tried doing the same to Whitlam over "Red China", but when Kissinger and Nixon went there too that boomerang smacked him in the face.
Where else could a media-junkie like me turn but to the sage at the juncture of domestic and foreign policy, Peter Hartcher? He clearly learned the wrong lessons here. Of course the incumbents rate their predecessors, and of course Abbott will lean on Howard for the consistency and decorum that he lacks.

It's partisan bullshit to say that everything our side did was great and everything the others did sent the country to hell. You can see this in UK politics: incumbent Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron professed to admire Tony Blair, who paid the compliment back to Thatcher, who in turn had praised Attlee. Keating was hobbled by his inability to find a good word for Liberals, while Howard looked like a statesman for praising Labor leaders Hawke and Chifley.

Prime Ministers are part of a continuum in the life of the nation, and successful Prime Ministers recognise that. They are about encouraging as many people to vote for them as possible, which means making co-partisans feel put out when they slaughter a fatted calf to welcome those who had voted otherwise in the past. Part of this is a sly narrative to paint the incumbent as a wan imitation of their party's past masters rather than the rightful heir.

Gillard has this right in her portrayal of Howard:
"I always thought he was a commendably disciplined person and enormously psychologically strong in terms of a conception of himself and a conception of what he wanted to do next and if I can replicate some of these things I would be happy with that."

It was his manner but also some of his decisions she admired: "As prime minister, Mr Howard had some fine moments and I believe when those moments are shown, we should celebrate them in a spirit of bipartisanship.
Subtext: compare Abbott's macho strutting, his absence of policy and antipathy to bipartisanship, to Howard, the man Abbott supposedly emulates. If you want guts, determination, vision and pragmatism, you'd have to vote for me over him.

Earlier in the piece Hartcher quoted probably the only Liberal-voting tenured academic in the country, Greg Mellueish [sic], associate professor of history and politics at Wollongong University [sic]. Why? A bit of column-stuffing, but hardly big on perspective or analysis:
"You got Kevin Rudd, who wanted to be another John Howard at the 2007 election, because Howard seemed to be the definition of political success".
There is the conservative paradox right there. Why would Rudd want to emulate a man on the way out? Do you think Gough Whitlam spent a lot of time being Billy McMahon? Remember how Rudd drove Liberals crazy in 2007 by picking a few key differences but basically differing little on everything else? Again, compare and contrast with Abbott forcing the Liberals to fight on all fronts, with few real policy options. Melleuish, whose Quadrant pieces should not, I hope, count toward his academic publishing requirements, missed that context and so too did Hartcher.

Hartcher's attempt to bring in US politics clouds the point he is trying to make. He is trying for a bit of Sheridan-like intellectual overreach. Neither he, Melleuish, nor the other conservative academic Hartcher quotes, Tom Switzer (the man who, along with Simon Berger, put Brendan Nelson where he is today), manage to square their circle and compare Abbott not to Howard, but George W Bush. The recklessness, the relentless opposition to all things bipartisan, the sheer disdain for contrary opinions however well grounded, the unusually close relationship with key female subordinates; all of these things are aspects of the prospect of an Abbott government that need some further investigation. Where would we get some of that?

The nearest thing we have to a comprehensive Liberal critique of Australian foreign policy generally and the UNSC vote in particular is not from the shadow minister, Julie Bishop, who has been in the position for years. It hasn't come from cocktail-party accessory Josh Frydenberg, who has Abbott bluffed into thinking he's a foreign policy expert. No, it has come from a former pothead, the man who made the South Australian Liberals almost unelectable for two generations now, and who plays the Cheney or Tebbitt role of ideological enforcer on Australian conservatives from retirement: Nick Minchin.

Minchin spent ten times the amount spent on UNSC lobbying enriching Joe Cocker and Kerry Packer, selling us a tax we had no choice but to buy. He put in place the policy shambles that is our telecommunications policy, which the NBN is designed to undo. Minchin kept Howard going long past his use-by date and had a hand in every Liberal leadership campaign since. The next Liberal Prime Minister will unchain Nick Minchin from his party's heart: Tony Abbott is not the next Liberal Prime Minister. Meanwhile, marvel at the sheer gall of this man:
"I think it's frankly disgusting that we've spent this money, this time and this effort to pursue something that I think compromises our aid program and potentially compromises our foreign affairs positions."
Um, what policies and positions in particular?
"And now we've got Bob Carr prancing around the world saying he's going to solve the Syrian civil war," he said.
Really? I can't find any statements to that effect. Maybe we should just sit back and wait for Syrian refugees to start lobbing up on Christmas Island.
"What about our backyard? We've got lots of problems in the Pacific we should be focusing on."
Problems that should have been addressed by the government of which Minchin, Abbott and Bishop were senior members, not the least of which is the neo-colonialist perception of other people's countries as our extended property.
"We will have no influence because all the decisions are made by the permanent members of the UN security council," he told Network Ten's the Bolt Report program on Sunday.
Really? Is there no precedent for middle powers having an impact on the UNSC? Bishop should have diplomatically set Minchin straight on that - Condoleezza Rice would've done that, and examples like Canada and Scandinavian countries come to mind here. They don't however. come to any Coalition minds - and more's the pity for their attempts to show us that they have what it takes to govern us.

Minchin's position is silly and reactionary and ignorant and all bad things - but it is a critique, and it's consistent with a long tradition of UN-phobia in the Coalition ranks, and those references to existing foreign policy challenges gives it the sort of occasional resonance necessary to develop truthiness. Minchin's remarks are exactly the sort of jetsam that gets sucked into a vacuum and becomes confused with substance and principle - and we have seen that Coalition foreign policy is a vacuum, and that it is endemic, and vested in the very people Minchin props up.

If Barnaby Joyce can bring on a foreign policy crisis over Chinese interests taking over a farm in Queensland (no problem with British interests doing so), you can see Coalition foreign policy is a lightweight thing, buffeted almost to breaking point even by hot air. Joyce and Bishop got a free trip to India thanks to Gina Reinhart to attend a wedding. How they will build on our relations with India, which seems to be reaching a new high plateau, is a question that Peter Hartcher might be better off examining for the sake of his credibility if nothing else.

Now is the time when people are starting to take the Coalition seriously as a potential government. They have failed to demonstrate that they can rise to the national interest, nor can they play politics effectively, and they have wasted five years in letting their policy skills atrophy. They are not ready for government and will not win. They cannot and will not deal with surprises, and nor can they flick the switch to competence on issues more directly relevant to voters than the UN Security Council.

In terms of this election cycle the Coalition are finished, the Abbott experiment is over, and with it the happy little Minchinite dream of coasting into office thanks to a self-sabotaging Labor government. Labor is run by people who win votes, Minchin et al only lose them: that's political context for ya. Let the polls catch up when they will.


  1. Very interesting. It certainly became obvious this last week that exposure to Indonesia and the UNSC caused the the wheels to fall off.

    The "high viz" fear mongering photo opportunity style of campaigning has run its course and there doesn't seem a lot of capacity to move beyond that.

    David Perth

  2. thank you andrew will they stick with abbott.
    now that there are no more stunts and no policies in site
    whats the next game, i think having his family around back fired yes they the are very nice people but.

    my husband never took me with him to a job application,
    may be they are trying to copy the u s a in this area, but this is not the u s a , we dont elect first ladies, with the pm.
    denise tas

    1. I suspect you're right about Abbott, Denise.

  3. I agree they are not ready for government but I don't agree that they won't win. Sadly. And they may even do it easily. Even more sadly. I cannot stand looking at the smug faces of Abbott and Bishop. They are embarassing and out of their depth on the world stage but I don't know whether that is a concern for the average joe voter. A lot of people are losing their jobs at the moment and things are getting tougher if you ask people. And they lay that very firmly at the feet of the current government.

    God knows what is happening with Hockey - he used to talk sense - and now he just looks incredibly unhappy and depressed most of the time (and who would blame him). Surely it is only a matter of time before Malcolm makes a return. At least he is about as left to the right as he can get and much more polished. Because if the Coalitin gets in and Tony Abbot is the next PM I am seriously moving to another country. Can you imagine the pompus idiot then?

    1. Today Hockey was forced to attack Swan for cutting entitlements. This after his big look at moi speech a few months back arguing for an end to the age of entitlement.

      Poor fella is doing his best to be a loyal team player but it's messing with his head.

    2. Lilly, this is how it ends. Everyone is looking for the big blow that knocks Tony Abbott out of contention. What will do him is the slow, steady leaching of events like I describe here in this blog.

    3. Anon, the goldfish press gallery can't remember Hockey's entitlement speech, though the praised it to a (wo)man

    4. I'm not sure if they can't remember or choose not to remember. Either way, they only have themselves to blame for the fact that more and more people are choosing to get their information from a combination of local blogs and overseas media.

      Annabel Crabb seemed positively shocked yesterday to learn that the Guardian has been covering Gillard's speech in a different way to the local hacks. Not to mention that such heterodoxy is read and commented on by more Australians than watch her and Tim Wilson stink up the Drum every night.

  4. Andrew

    You are one of several people I read regularly who have long stated that the Coalition are running on empty, that they have staked everything on an early election and Labor effectively defeating itself.

    I've always disagreed with this argument - not so much the hope for an early election, which has been clear enough, but that the Coalition have nothing else. Surely, I reasoned, they'd have a Plan B, they'd be prepared to respond to events as they go along in a way that makes voters think the Coalition is ready to govern.

    I'm now beginning to realise just how wrong I may have been.

  5. One sure bet, in fact worth plenty, if Abbott is Leader of the Torys come election 2013. Labor will retain office as a majority Government. The trending strongly indicates it, Julia Gillard is too intelligent not to go in too hard too early. 12 months is a long time and the PM will have her sights set on when and how she would like to see the trend go past the 50/50 mark.
    Abbott may think he has a doozey in Credlin, but she is no match for 'Our Red'.
    One thing is a dead cert. Mr Abbott will never spend one night in The Lodge as its rightful occupant. Never.

  6. Cocktail party accessory Frydenberg


    You make my tram rides enjoyable Mr Elders by reading your blog



  7. Peter Warrington22/10/12 11:57 am

    yes there were two micro skills from Howard that I always meant to apply and never did - apparently he (a) never let a meeting go over time, there always had to be a second meeting in the schedule if time elapsed; and (b) he always had a lunch break, every day. Great advice for anyone in government I reckon. i disapprove of almost everything else. he couldn't care less, rightly so.

  8. I have always thought that Australians will not vote in dramatic fashion but the few times that have, such as Howard's first victory was quickly re-aligned 3 years later.

    The Coalition- or whoever provides their talking points- do not seem to understand how Australian's vote. For all their demonizing of Julia Gillard, the country has rolled on in fairly ship=shape fashion and I don't see enough Aussies wanting to rock the boat for an unknown quantity and that is what Abbott is. No-one really knows what he stands for.

    John Howard was never popular but he maintained a steady course (not to my liking) and it got him over the line each time until a contender , Kevin Rudd looked like he would be the same but better.

    Minchin's got a nerve bringing up the Pacific nations as the Coalition policies towards them during Howard's years were a shocker but even for that reason alone, this UN seat is invaluable to Pacific nations who we need to make our very best friends.

  9. Exactly

    Abbott stands for nothing in the polity thus far.


    Ask any member of the public what they think of him and you get these responses

    My taxi driver.....wanker

    My waxer....not a fan!!

    My gen y female friend....old fashioned etc

  10. Nick Minchin ... still ruling from beyond the (political) grave. It would be great to get a look at his phone accounts and see who he rings and who rings him.

    And as an earlier poster noted, you have to feel for Joe Hockey. the gig could have been his and now he is left on the sidelines to try and muster up some enthusiasm for the ideas the lunatics in charge of the asylum come up with ...

  11. We have been on the founding board and committee of the refugee commission since the beginning, we ignore our own laws to spend $2 billion a year jailing the very people we are on a committee to help.

    Hypocrisy always wins and with the war mongers on the UNSC we will be in good company.

  12. Peter Warrington22/10/12 7:22 pm

    but MArr's alleged insight to focus groups yesterday on Insiders, where he presaged a BOATS BOATS BOATS election, was a bit scary. there were bits of 2001 I quite liked (Prague in January, Richmond making the Prelim etc), August-October sucked the big ones.

  13. Joe Hockey should stick to dire predictions of interest rate movements. He has at least a 50/50 chance of being right.
    Then again it is bizarre to watch a guy consistently backing heads when tails come up 12 times in a row.
    Hang in there Joe, you have got to get it right eventually.

  14. how did it come to pass ?

    1. Policy laziness and too much focus on the media.

    2. too much focus on media interests ?

  15. Rudd's failure to effect large parts of his domestic policy agenda (& subsequent leadership nonsense) has rather elided any decent analysis of his foreign policy achievements. I'm thinking especially of the whole issue of < resource nationalism > & its policy implementation in sub-Saharan Africa, something Australia has apparently been facilitating? Which I imagine won us a whole tranche of votes from that part of the world.

    The consequent shame of us winning the UNSC seat is that post-Rudd foreign policy is a return to the disappointing recent tradition of Australian foreign policy: whatever the US State Dept directs us to do.

    (a Canberra economist I know once suggested to me that the federal govt should formalise the situation, & simply dispense with Foreign Affairs as a redundancy)

  16. Abbott was not only totally unprepared for Australia winning the UNSC seat he was convinced we would fail. Hence his mocking but stupid comments about "if you cannot beat Luxembourg......". As Abbott's hero, Howard, failed in 1996 and ruled out trying in 2004, Abbott could not fathom Gillard/Carr had a chance.

    And whoever is advising Abbott on customs to be observed when visiting foreign countries should be sacked. A photo opportunity for Abbott meeting the locals in Indonesia, had Abbott with his booted foot perched on a table where food was being prepared. Yuck

    1. You just can't tell the guy. No more useless job than advising him, like Howard he just holds his breath until you stop speaking and then says "Mmmm."

  17. Watch Media Watch on bloggers Andrew

    very interesting

    1. I did that, no idea who would sponsor this blog though!

    2. don't know who the sponsor could be but what a classy audience for them to target!

  18. Write something on baby clothes or breast-feeding and reel them in, Andrew.

  19. "The only Liberal voting tenured academic"?

    You are teasing. I hope.

    I could start with my dad in law (who kept his Liberal faith even after marching to protest the Howard cuts that really hurt his ag department).

    Or I could point to half of my pretty decent law school.

  20. One thing I am hoping for, come the next Federal election campaign (assuming Gillard and Abbott are still leaders of their respective parties) is a good old-fashioned leaders debate. Not the pre-fabricated 'joint press conference'-style 'debates' of 2007 and 2010, but one from the Hawke/Keating eras where the leaders directly engage each other in combat.

    Assuming Abbott will remain as light on policy detail as trend suggests (partly from laziness, and partly due to the deliberate tactic of keeping detail to himself), Gillard by at that time will have a solid 3+ years of policy achievement to run on. She would absolutely devastate him.

  21. Really enjoying watching the SBS doco on Romney and Obama

    Must see for politicos

    Obama was such an easy going guy in his twenties and would be the product of Australias multicultural success story here

    He epitomises the story of many prominent but cool Australian-Greeks et al

    Romneys grandfather was a polygamist Mormon

    Just like the United States is a story and a land of contradictions in extremes of both candidates