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.
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."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.
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.
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.