Politicians and journalists would have us believe that controversies over recent remarks by opposition leader Tony Abbott presage a stark choice about Australian foreign and security policy at the next election.
At first glance, they have a point. After all, Abbott decided to use a public forum in the United States to attack the Gillard government for its wavering commitment to defence spending. This drew outraged indignation from Labor about the alleged sin of talking down the nation while overseas.
And Labor’s convenient championing of the national interest continued with criticism of Abbott over another speech, this time in Beijing. There he had put down some markers about the likely limits to state-owned Chinese stakes in Australian business under a future Abbott government, even while broadly welcoming Chinese and wider foreign investment.
On one level, all this fuss should be pleasing for those of us who think international policy matters. After all, one of the unhealthy features of the 2010 election was the vacuum of ideas about Australia’s place in a changing world.
Could it be that debate about foreign and defence policy will actually figure in the next federal election, for the first time in a long time, perhaps since the Vietnam-riven 1960s?
Don’t hold your breath. Much of the clamour in recent weeks has sounded more like the noisy blanks of a cynical political war game than a purposeful exchange of fire. This is a foreign policy phoney war, and it is unlikely to become the real thing.
The fact is that, despite the bitter excess of partisanship that has engulfed Australian politics in recent years, there is and will remain more continuity and similarity in the external policies of Labor and the Coalition than either side would care to admit.
Take defence spending. Of course the government left itself vulnerable when it announced major cuts to the military budget earlier this year, at a time when the strategic environment is becoming more troubled. Little wonder Abbott has seized on this, both because of Australia’s looming capability shortfalls and the signal this sends to the US and the region. The only surprise is how long it has taken him.
But look closely. The contrast is not between a doughty opposition promising big things on national security and a wobbly government taking cut-price relief through strategic complacency.
Abbott has made no firm commitment to returning the defence budget to its levels under Howard or Rudd. And when it comes to defence, there remain hard-core realist voices on the Labor side who would like to see more spending on defence — not least Rudd himself, whatever his political future.
Or consider the hot strategic issue of the moment: the tensions between China and other countries in the contested South China Sea. Again, it is not hard to detect the whiff of manufactured political difference.
Yesterday on Insiders, Defence Minister Stephen Smith accused Abbott thus:
“Well Tony Abbott went to China and in typical, literally, Tony Abbott ‘bull in a china shop’ fashion, he made remarks about the South China Sea which were at best inelegant … when you go to a country like China you’ve got to be nuanced, you’ve got to be careful, you’ve got to be responsible and appropriate in what you say.”
Yet what was striking about Abbott’s remark on this issue was precisely how it accorded with these qualities. In his Beijing speech, Abbott simply said: “Under a Coalition government, Australia will do what it can to ensure that territorial disputes in the South China Sea are managed peacefully in accordance with international law”.
It is difficult to imagine what part of this piece of quite un-Abbottesque envoy-speak the Gillard government could find objectionable. Even China has been known to go along with similar diplomatic formulations, whatever its real intentions. Canberra’s policy establishment is well aware of the intractability of Asia’s maritime territorial disputes: a middleweight, US-allied third party like Australia can at best help manage them, not resolve them.
And then there is the multibillion dollar question of Chinese investment. Again, the government has blasted Abbott for supposedly alienating future Chinese investors with his remark, made in his recent speech in Beijing, that it would “rarely be in Australia’s national interest to allow a foreign government or its agencies to control an Australian business”. Yet it is hard to imagine that this is at odds with the private views of key players in the Gillard or Rudd governments.
To be sure, there are points of difference. Abbott’s insistence on emphasising the merits of Australia’s “Anglosphere” heritage and connections to the United States and Britain does little to advance the national interest, and Foreign Minister Bob Carr was on target in pointing this out in his speech to the Lowy Institute on Friday.
But both sides are equally committed to intensifying our alliance ties with Washington, and seem determined to outdo one another with the ardour of their public pep talks for whatever might ail America’s strategic mojo.
The tragedy in all this confected conflict and drama of Australian external policy is this. The Greens aside, there is actually a large measure of quiet consensus in Australian politics about what constitutes the “national interest” (the term is itself a Howard-era Coalition mantra now absorbed painlessly into Labor vocabulary). Moreover, it is only through bipartisan consent and endeavour that Australia stands a chance of advancing these interests in a competitive, changing and uncertain world.
Instead, we are likely to see the government’s forthcoming “Asian Century” white paper rejected by the Coalition, with Abbott likely to pursue political advantage in finding something to criticise in the paper — despite his party probably broadly agreeing with its direction. This likely new episode in the foreign policy phoney war will result in yet more years of bloody-minded tussling and reinvention of the wheel over defence and foreign policy that will probably not settle until the shape of a changing strategic order is already troublingly clear.
By all means, let there be democratic difference and debate. But wouldn’t it be refreshing to see the kind of contest that would do something for the national interest — like a race to see which side of politics can be first to give Australia’s under-resourced Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade the edge it needs to give Australia a chance in the unforgiving decades ahead.