Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Normally we hope politicians' decisions are driven by the best policy options. 

That's not always the case, as this column explores.


Imagine a line running from left to right. Let’s call it the “policy line”, because it runs the complete gamut of all our foreign policy options. On the extreme right is total and complete alignment with Washington and, if you look carefully, you can see that Tony Abbott’s over there. His head just poked out from behind the Capitol building. That’s right, be nice and give him a wave back. Now, look very, very slightly to the left of Abbott you’ll see Julia Gillard. Look, she’s smiling at you. Give her a wave too.

Now cast your eyes to the left. Keep going and eventually you’ll arrive at the correct policy position for Canberra. Unsurprisingly, that’s in the middle of the line. Then, if you keep looking to the left, finally you’ll arrive in Beijing. But don’t worry about that, there’s no need to go that far. All the action’s happening on the right.

Abbott started it. At the beginning of the year he realised he needed to establish his foreign policy credentials. An international trip was organised. He started in Washington (solidly reaffirming the US alliance) and then flew across the Pacific to Beijing. That’s where (just like Gough Whitlam before him) Abbott “broke with protocol” and criticised Labor while he was overseas. So it turned out his trip was all about Australia, after all. China was just providing the background scenery. Very pretty it was too.

Now it didn’t appear obvious at the time but Abbott had revealed a vulnerability; and it was one that someone in the PM’s office picked up on. Normally the government would search out the correct policy position for the country: which is somewhere in the centre of the mythical line described above. But Gillard realised that in order to win politically, all she needed to do was to occupy a spot on the right that was – even ever so slightly – to the left of Abbott. So, much to the surprise of those who remembered her days as a Euro-communist, that’s what she did. At a single stroke she captured the initiative. The politics was brilliant. By cleaving to the alliance, gushing to the US Senate and giving the nod to US forces to Darwin, Gillard has ensured there was not a scintilla of space for Abbott to drive a wedge between her and Barack Obama. She needed, however, a sop for those who want a more independent foreign policy. Something to look forward thinking and engaged. Well, that was the Asian White Paper. Lots of noise but precious little action. None of that matters, however, because the Paper served its political purpose. It’s created the impression of a real choice for voters. Sure, Abbott’s got the extreme right locked up, but there’s really no choice for everyone else. Gillard’s made sure she occupies all the remaining policy space. Abbott’s been boxed in tightly. Although independently thinking voters might prefer Labor to be a little closer to the middle, that’s irrelevant. Gillard’s been playing politics, not the foreign policy game. And she’s winning.

The focus has paid off. Labor's improvement in the polls has been maintained for long enough to demonstrate it's not an accident. Although Gillard has demonstrated the ability to snatch defeat from victory in the past, the big difference is that the government is no longer facing a complete rout, merely a defeat. That will remain the case for as long as the current leadership team remains in place, but the point is that the momentum has changed direction.

On Thursday night last week, for example, the Prime Minister discovered clashing requirements entering her schedule. She was meant to be the keynote speaker at the Kokoda Foundation’s annual dinner – unfortunately, that was also the night of the Business Council of Australia's dinner in Sydney. At one time a conflict such as this could have caused chaos. But today the office is working better. The Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, Senator David Feeney, was sent him to fill the breach. But what made him a more than adequate substitute was the fact that Gillard trusted him to write his own speech. As a result, instead of meaningless platitudes, the audience received a considered argument (tailored for the audience) on the rapidly shifting changes in the strategic environment.

Kevin Rudd's problem was his relentless desire for centralisation. The chaos of the last election campaign emanated similarly from Gillard's office. Her ‘brainwave’ assuming that East Timor would be prepared to take asylum seekers. Her ‘inspiration’ that a citizen’s assembly could somehow craft a solution to the problem of climate change. The Liberals won't be the grateful recipients of such incoherent thought-bubbles next time. The big change seems to be that she is finally listening to people who might have some understanding of the area and actually know something about policy. It seems to be working.

That's not to say that the primary driver of many decisions isn't political; it is. But it's politics turned into policy in an intelligent, considered way rather than a brain snap from the centre. Although Feeney didn't mention the looming decision that's needed to obtain a new submarine, this remains the most critical defence decision facing the country for the next decade. There are three options. The first, and cheapest, is to buy a European design. Unfortunately those boats are designed to operate in the Baltic and aren’t suitable. The second is to lease nuclear boats from the US. These aren’t as cost-effective as it first appears and couldn’t be serviced here anyway. That leaves only one option: building our own sub in Adelaide.

That’s the obvious decision for political reasons as well. It’s vital if Labor wants to hold South Australia. It has the added benefit of further limiting Abbott’s spending promises, because that money’s already committed. Bizarrely, this obvious nexus of politics and policy appears to have escaped the government until now. Logically you’d expect an announcement before Christmas, but that will depend if the shilly-shallying, muddle-headed wombats are in control. There’s increasing reason to suspect their day has passed.

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