04 March 2014

Who your mates are

Why have an epilogue when you can have some context? Peter Hartcher has been political and international editor at The Sydney Morning Herald for over a decade. He was starting to get bored with the role when Kevin Rudd began using foreign policy to raise his profile; Hartcher became Rudd's press spokesperson, which paid off for Hartcher when Rudd became Prime Minister in 2007 and continued after he lost the job three years later. Labor people with a gripe about Gillard went to Hartcher first; Labor people seeking to promote the Gillard government were wasting their time; Liberals had written Hartcher off since his boy became Labor leader in 2006.

When Rudd became Prime Minister again last year, Hartcher was vindicated. The rest of the media had promised that Labor would get better coverage if they dumped Gillard for Rudd, then turned on him because ha ha too late and it was Abbott who could do no wrong. After the Abbott-Rudd debate in 2013 Hartcher turned on Rudd but the Liberals gave him all the respect due to a sated tick that has dropped off its host. He seems to have settled on Hockey but it is unclear to what extent this is reciprocated.

Here Hartcher is trying to show that he's Still Got It when it comes to The Big Geopolitical Vision, and splicing that into the daily grind of Canberra machinations.
The Chinese government was unhappy with Australia's new Prime Minister ... A senior Chinese official privately asked Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop for an explanation in Canberra in November. She disarmed the Chinese by laughing it off: "Tony does that all the time in cabinet. He puts his arm around everyone, everyone's his mate, everyone's his best friend."

When everyone is your best friend, no one is your best friend. It was a clever way of deflecting the protest that lurked behind the question.
It would have been clever had it worked. There is no evidence that it has. Hartcher should have looked for that, rather than talked up Julie Bishop.
So the Abbott government so far has set out two different hierarchies for Australia's foreign relations, and China isn't in top spot in either.
From the mid-1960s until about five years ago, Japan was our largest trading partner. Tokyo was never in top spot in Australia's foreign policy hierarchy for any Australian government during that time. He doesn't really explain what such a ranking might entail.
A new Labor senator looking to make a name for himself in foreign affairs, Sam Dastyari, has picked up on this.
What's happened here is that Dastyari has picked up on Hartcher. Any tidbits on Labor from hereon in will come from Dastyari, any "pragmatic assessments on the state of Labor" will basically be whatever Dastyari is trying to get across.
Dastyari, formerly the general secretary of the NSW Labor Party, sees a troubling trend, a turn away from the great rising power.

China dominated the world economy till about 1840. Just as the Middle Kingdom returns to the centre of world power, is Australia about to marginalise itself?
Dastyari is following the Rudd playbook to the letter. What a smart guy! If you want someone to suck up to powerful people, Sam's your man and so is Peter: to quote from Humphrey Bogart, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I wonder if Sam has an opinion on President Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama certainly has lots to say about empty vessels with important-sounding titles, like Sam and Peter. I don't expect either of them will be commenting on that.

Read the second sentence in the second line of that quote immediately above: it should be the central question of Hartcher's article, with the performance of both the incumbent and the alternative government judged against it.
Japan's provocative act was when its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an official visit to pay his respects to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine a month later.

Again, this doesn't sound very dangerous, but it inflamed opinion in Beijing and Seoul because it is the official shrine to Japan's war dead, including the war criminals who led Japan's invasions of China and South Korea.
Australia's best friend wouldn't go anywhere near Yasukuni.

Hideki Tojo, who led Japan during World War II, is entombed and honoured at that shrine even though he never made it to Darwin. So are a number of war criminals directly responsible for the abuse of Australian prisoners-of-war. A train carriage from the Thai-Burma railway is exhibited at the site as a triumph of Japanese engineering and infrastructure-building for an ungrateful Asia. Every time a Japanese politician plays to that country's more ignorant and xenophobic voters by going to Yakusuni, it is a big fuck-you to Australian war dead, Australian veterans, and Australians generally.

When you consider that the family of Shinzo Abe (Japan's current Prime Minister) benefited economically during the 1940s from indentured labour by Australian prisoners-of-war. That Abe went to Yakusini on the eve of an official visit from his Australian counterpart (and a few weeks before this country commemorates its war veterans), the sheer depth and breadth of Abe's diplomatic and ethical breach should be apparent.

As a former Herald correspondent in Tokyo, Hartcher should know this. He should report on it. His editors should call him on this.
In calling Japan "Australia's best friend in Asia", Abbott was merely repeating a formula that John Howard used when he was prime minister. Australia's ties with Beijing survived and thrived.

Bishop's point that the overall economic relationship with the US, including investment, makes the US, not China, Australia's economic best friend, may be cute but it's not wrong.

And Dastyari is wrong to claim her statement is in any way "at the expense" of relations with China.

As Howard demonstrated, and as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard also demonstrated, it's entirely possible to improve relations with all the great powers at once.
Times have changed.

The relationship between China and Japan is more fraught than it was under Howard, Rudd, or Gillard. The incumbent government, the alternative government, and journalists who report on government, should all be alert to that.

Hartcher should know this. He should report current events in light of broader developments. What he is doing instead is buttering up the incumbent Australian government in order to keep his job. He is playing his employers, and readers, for mugs.
In fact, it would be a betrayal of the national interest not to. And this is exactly what Abbott will seek to do as he embarks on the three-nation trip to the region he announced on Monday.

He will travel to China, Japan and South Korea.
Now there comes the question as to the difference between what Abbott seeks to do, and what he does.

This is where we need an experienced political observer; someone who's been around Canberra, knows how it works.
Relations with all three are in solid shape.
Bullshit. The relationship with China has scarcely been worse since the relationship commenced in the 1970s. Note the laughable headline and rest of the content on this paywalled article by Hartcher's more reliable Fairfax colleagues.
Abbott's government has already concluded a free-trade agreement with one of these three, South Korea, and is making good progress on the other two.
It didn't have time to stuff up the work done by previous governments. There is no progress to speak of toward a trade deal with China, apart from the say-so of Abbott and his staff. The idea of a free trade deal with Japan has made no progress since 1957. As far as the governments of China and Japan are concerned, no progress has been made, and recent comments by the Chinese government have been clear that they do not regard a China-Australia trade deal as a priority (especially given Australia's involvement in the TPP process).

Again: Hartcher should know that, and report on it.
China has moved beyond Bishop's rebuke, or any of the other perceived Abbott government slights, as all countries do when they are getting on with the big issues.
The People's Republic of China does not suffer rebukes, nor girlish laughter and fobbing-off. True, Australia's relationship with China isn't as bad as that of Japan, but the fact that it is could be worse does not mean that it is as good as it can be. It is certainly not better than it had been under each of Abbott's three predecessors, or even as good.

Hartcher should know this. He is wrong to misrepresent the state of our foreign relations in this way.
The whole concept of a "zero sum" in Australia's world affairs, where progress with one country can only happen at the expense of another, is sandbox stuff.
Mostly this is true, but not always. It may not be true now, or into the foreseeable future.

In our first decade as a nation, Australian politicians maintained that we could have equally good relations with Britain, then the world's leading power, and Germany, the rising economic powerhouse of the day. They were mostly right, but it was silly to dismiss the prospect of "zero sum" just as Hartcher is doing now.

Now we are in a time of disequilibrium among the major powers in our region, and in the world. Hartcher's blithe assurances are not soundly based on anything but precedent for a time that has now passed.

The fact that gaffes by Bishop and Abbott haven't caused lasting damage is beside the point. The fact is they shouldn't have been made. We* put those people into office on the basis of inadequate information by Peter Hartcher and his ilk, who should have used their knowledge of politics and international affairs to tell us what it takes to represent Australian interests internationally and then measure the political alternatives against that. What Hartcher has done is sucked up to Bishop and Dastyari for his own sakes, and theirs.
The trade negotiations with China and Japan both appear to have gained impetus from the success of the deal with South Korea.
Based on what? To give one example, the share of the Australian car market for Japanese manufacturers has nowhere to go but down as a result of this deal with a competitor they don't really respect.
As for publicly ranking countries, Dastyari is right. It's gratuitous and juvenile.

But if the Labor Party detects an Abbott "pivot" away from China, it's more upset about it than Beijing itself.
This is more silly, straw-man stuff. Dastyari isn't the Labor spokesperson on foreign affairs. It is silly for the incumbent to slap a powerful country across the face as often as the Abbott government has and does. This isn't to say that it hurts that powerful country, but it's generally poor form on Abbott's part and on the part of Bishop, whose line is better expressed as: we have to put up with Tony being Tony, so you do too.
Labor should wish Abbott a successful trip. In the national interest.
Labor should be prepared for Abbott's foreign policy adventures not to go well, to bring this to public attention, and to develop foreign policy responses that might restore China-Australia relations (and our relations with the US, Japan, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and other countries) to a warm and productive state. That's what Labor should do, in the national interest.

You don't have to do much to be on good terms with the UK and New Zealand, our only "solid" relationships under this government.

Yes, Labor are biased against Abbott. They will give him little or no credit for any successes he may have, while highlighting the shortcomings and failures of the incumbents. This does not put Hartcher in a position where he must lecture them on what foreign policy is or should be. His assessments on the current state of foreign policy (or relationship with China is great! Couldn't be better! Go Tony go!) are poor, or at best suspect. Why a major newspaper represents the work of a cheerleader more highly than is appropriate is a matter of great misfortune, for the once-proud masthead itself, and for the public debate that is polluted by this sort of thing.

Peter Hartcher has form for insisting that political context is whatever he says it is. Now that we have established that context is other than what he says it is, or the opposite of what he says it is. The value of Peter Hartcher's reporting, his title and the employer who bestowed it, is less than each might appear. Like Kim Beazley or Andrew Peacock, Hartcher has gone straight from being Tomorrow's Man to Yesterday's Man with no interval of attainment, only promise unfulfilled.

What we need is someone who'll tell us what is going on, so we can decide how and by whom we will best be governed. What we've got in Peter Hartcher is someone who'll only tell us what will make us think well of a small number of people who also think well of him.


  1. Thanks, Andrew. Deftly done, as always — Hartcher is your bunny… Seems to me that the degree to which Hartcher is unable to comprehend most issues he attempts to illuminate is perfectly matched by his belief that he does comprehend and illuminate. There's probably a formula for it. Whether or not he believes all his own piffle, he and the others of his ilk are the reason I stopped buying newspapers. Reading the comments following the vacuous and disingenuous "We expected more of Gillard" piece, I see that we are many, and that the flavour of tripe is not to most people's taste these days. How this matters not to Fairfax is beyond me.

  2. Hartcher is really a political harlot, clearly not secure enough in his own capacity to dig out stories and generate critical insights, and therefore highly prone to abusive relationships with politicians who use him as a public relations tool. First it was Costello, then Rudd, now Hockey if the recent puff piece in the Herald is anything to go by. He always strikes me as a guy who is trying to fashion himself in the Paul Kelly style - faux gravitas and all, without the ready made agenda's and quick dial tory contacts that come from working at the Murdoch gulag. The fact that he effectively took over from Alan Ramsey at the Herald is futher cause for regret.

    1. Fairfax regard him as a superstar. The Hartcher-Kelly dialogues seem like they are trying to bring about enough gravitas to turn coal into diamonds.

  3. Tell us what will make us think well of a small number of people who also think well of him........


    That logic is applied to many people across the media

    Spot on there Andrew!
    Great work.

  4. Look at the number just like him who all told us we had to kick out the ALP because Abbott and his gang of thugs with no agenda or ideas were the grown ups.