There’s a new book out from Black Inc entitled Tony Speaks!, a collection of quotable musings from the alternative prime minister. It’s a shame they didn’t hold the presses for Abbott’s foreign invasion to China.

It wasn’t just his attempt to scare off Chinese investors by declaring state-owned foreign enterprises buying into Australian companies would “rarely be in Australia’s interest”. Though, as Bob Carr noted, that seems “dangerously dumb” in itself.

It was how little nuance Abbott offered in his diplomatic mission statements. His speech to the AustCham body in Beijing on Tuesday is worth a read. Take this gem on the development of ties with the Middle Kingdom:

“The Chinese restaurant, long ubiquitous in Australia’s suburbs and towns, was an early sign of our readiness to absorb foreign ways and make them part of our own.”

It was all the sweet-and-sour, apparently.

And on his personal relationship with the region?

“As health minister in the Howard government, I visited Beijing (twice), Shanghai, Hong Kong and Chengdu in 2006 and 2007. I was keen to work with my then-Chinese counterpart, Minister Gao, to maximise precautions against a possible bird flu pandemic. At my colleague’s invitation, I visited Sichuan province and was, so I’m told, the first Australian MP since Bob Hawke allowed to cuddle a baby Panda bear.”

A coup, indeed.

Even the customary “by the way, can you please stop persecuting your people” component of the speech landed with a dull thud:

“In the long term, China should prosper even more if its people enjoyed freedom under the law and the right to choose a government, despite the difficulty of managing this transition in a country with a tumultuous history. Regardless of their political orientation, the more people work together the more they usually end up learning from each other.”

Well, indeed.

There were other mixed metaphors and barely there policy initiatives coded for local and Australian ears: the Coalition’s plan to have 40% of school leavers studying a foreign language, developing northern Australia as a “food bowl” for Asia and, of course, the vow to repeal the carbon and mining taxes.

But as diplomacy goes, Julia “I’d rather read to kids than go overseas” Gillard suddenly doesn’t look so bad.

Peter Fray

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