Saturday, July 21, 2012


Being in Opposition allows a politician to be critical. 

But managing to find the answers is another thing entirely, as this column dissecting a recent Tony Abbott speech in Washington suggests . . .


Tony Abbott relished the opportunity the question provided. “As a result of defence cuts in the recent budget”, he insisted, “Australia’s defence spending as a percentage of gross domestic product is now at the lowest level since - wait for it - 1938. So that is quite a concern.” High, high above, a pig soared gracefully in the Washington air. It prepared to loop-the-loop above the Heritage Foundation.

“We do not live in a benign environment”, Abbott continued. “We do not live in benign times.” Really? Booming trade with China. Osama bin Laden dead. Al Qaeda diminished. The pig continued its ascent. But it was obvious the rhetoric was becoming too detached from reality. There was a need to ground the flight of fancy.

“I do think”, Tony Abbott continued, “that it is irresponsible to save money in Defence in a way that compromises your military capacity”. Ah. The pig zoomed swiftly down, floating in and landing gently in a flowered meadow nearby.

It’s fashionable, on the Labor side, to accuse Abbott of lacking political subtlety. Yet his brief speech in Washington demonstrated exactly how sophisticated and canny his political abilities are. Deconstruct exactly what he achieved in a few, brief days.

He was in Washington to attend the Australian-American “leadership dialogue”. This is nothing more than the equivalent of an internet chat room made physical in a big hotel; one where lots of particularly self-important people can sit around and enjoy pompously shootin’ the breeze with one another. Nobody had ever heard about the talkfest until Kevin Rudd, then a backbencher working the numbers against Kim Beazley, attended the forum to demonstrate his own impeccably conservative credentials. It worked a treat for him. That’s why he was there, again, this week. Abbott is just repeating the trick.

He also had to show everyone that he was in Washington and being treated seriously. Unfortunately, however, the White House wouldn’t oblige. No matter how much Abbott’s a shoe-in to be our next Prime Minister; no matter how much America wants Australia to step-up to the plate and increase defence spending, Barack Obama isn’t going to do any favours for a right-winger. So how to get the message out?

Fortunately the conservative Heritage Foundation stepped into the breach. More identified with Ronald Regan than the most recent George Bush, this institute propounds right-wing ideology with the same fervour that the USSR once propounded international communism in the fiercest days of the cold war. The Foundation’s motto (“Leadership for America”) implies the need for minutemen to be ready to spring to arms to defend the constitution. Taking a broader approach, however, has reinvigorated the institution.  It’s thrown off the old, left/right dichotomies of the past.

This approach led the Foundation to extol Australia in its Index of Economic Freedom. We’re placed third in the world (behind Hong Kong and Singapore, but well in front of the US, relegated to tenth place). Importantly, research suggests major gains have been achieved since Labor came to power in 2007. It particularly praises, for example, the way the current government’s limited its spending. This is the sort of manna you’d expect Julia Gillard to highlight when she responded to Abbott’s attack . . . but you’d be disappointed. She can’t understand nuance. Her world appears as utterly divided into black and white as Abbott’s. Perhaps one day, in the far distant future, a politician will be able to perceive the full palette of colour once again. Not, I fear, in my lifetime.

And that’s why the Foundation ‘invited’ the Opposition leader: to provide him with a platform. Blood, particularly right-wing blood, is thicker than either water or economic freedom. But hunt through Abbott’s speech for anything interesting to report and you’ll be disappointed. Apart, perhaps, from his recitation of the quotation from the words inscribed on the statue of liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” Abbott pointed out that, “English-speaking countries have beckoned to people everywhere, especially in troubled times”. He must have been confused. We don’t, apparently, want asylum seekers and the Americans don’t want people crossing the Mexican border.  Maybe the trick is to divorce your words from the policies such noble sentiments would appear to require. Because this appears to be the moral of all his subsequent huffing and puffing on defence.

The speech itself was just tosh and padding. Mind you, some of the jokes were good. Like the one about when Abbott went to Washington with a program organised by a US agency. They’d been told he was a “Liberal” and “strongly anti-republican” but assumed that this meant he was liberal (socialist) and virulently anti-Republican (non-conservative) and so his program was filled with meetings with American leftists. This anecdote demonstrates perfectly how we are divided from the US by more than just a common language. Abbott’s speech, however, extolled our ‘special’ relationship with anodyne phrases. “Our [common] objectives”, he said, “are to promote trade, prevent aggression and, where possible, to foster democracy based on the rule of law.” Abbott could give exactly the same speech in Beijing.

Abbott could have used his speech to commit to beefing up our military: but he didn’t. And for a very good reason, too. That would require detail. Committing to a force structure. Guaranteed expenditure commitments. These are just the sort of things Abbott’s determined to avoid. So he waited until the question and answer session and it was these words that hit the headlines. Later, when asked for specifics, he ran a mile. “I don't want to put figures on [defence spending]. I just want to say it's not what you spend but what you deliver. That's the important thing.” Again, just generalities and feel-good, warm reassurance. Trust me, it’ll be OK.

But don’t think this means any more money will be spent on the services. The good times are gone for good. The astute analyst Ross Babbage has already carefully pointed out exactly why Rudd’s grand submarine fleet will be the first formation facing the chop. The cuts won’t stop there. If any star-ranked officer seriously believes Abbott will divert money from hospitals and tax-cuts to the military, they need their head read. Re-examine the caveat in what Abbott said. There will, definitely, be further cuts; it’s only irresponsible to save moneyin a way that compromises” military capacity.

Just imagine how many dollars we can save without making such compromises. It’s all a matter of definition. 

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