A volunteer collects money as part of the #coinforAbbott and #coinforAustralia protests against Tony Abbott’s comments on tsunami aid

In the lead-up to the 2013 election, foreign affairs minister designate and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party Julie Bishop promised to restore the primacy of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Australian foreign policy decision-making.

It was a nice line, and a swipe at the Rudd years of dysfunctional policy-making — especially in foreign affairs, where the former junior diplomat was the expert. Like much of Rudd’s premiership, it was gridlock.

In opposition, Bishop worked extremely hard at getting up to speed on the world and the Asia-Pacific region in particular, in contrast to an opposition frontbench that by and large had a bewildering indifference to the world outside Australia. The message from Bishop was clear: there would be no surprises, no missteps, advice would be sought, sense would prevail.

Fast-forward 18 months. Bishop listens to and backs the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, yet Australia’s diplomatic corps still find themselves sidelined more often than they would like in favour of Abbott’s foreign policy kitchen cabinet. No wonder tensions between the much-maligned Peta Credlin and Bishop are at boiling point. It’s not quite Rudd redux — reaching across every foreign policy decision — but it’s a real issue.

And to be fair to Rudd, at least he had a diplomatic background, spoke fluent Chinese and had a firm grasp of geopolitics on entering office.

Over the weekend Prime Minister Tony Abbott was accused of cavalier disregard for the lives of Australian service persons with a stillborn proposal to unilaterally invade Iraq with 4500 troops cooked up with his foreign policy brains trust. He eventually backed down from this, but he has form — at one stage proposing, similarly, to send 1000 members of the Australian armed forces on another possible suicide mission in Ukraine with barely a pause for thought.

Abbott’s contemptuous attitude to foreign policy extends to his obligations at the head of the Australia Security Council; apparently it is not worthy of his full attention. He is also reported to have let Credlin — an unelected law graduate who has only ever worked for the Liberal Party or horse racing associations — chair national security meetings. Credlin’s husband, Brian Loughnane, is the manager of the party Abbott fronts.

The other permanent player in Abbott’s foreign policy kitchen cabinet is policy adviser Andrew Shearer, personable in the flesh, a dyed-in-the-wool Tory and former mid-ranking diplomat and Lowy Institute official who co-wrote a highly critical report on the disgraceful slow-motion diminution of DFAT since John Howard took office in 1996. The report documented a death by a thousand small budget cuts that has left the department one of the worst resourced per capita in the Western world. Finland, population 4 million, has a bigger diplomatic footprint than Australia.

Yet as a key member of Abbott’s foreign policy team, Shearer has so far failed to stop the bleeding, with almost $400 million slashed from DFAT in the last budget. It will be interesting to see if his mentor Michael Thawley, Australia’s very own neocon “Black Prince” — after Bush-era political adviser Richard Perle — who served as Washington ambassador for John Howard during the lead-up to and execution of the Iraq War and recently returned to head up the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, can help his acolyte.

Last, but certainly not least, is recently shifted immigration minister Scott Morrison. Before entering Parliament, he was the deeply unpopular head of Tourism Australia, a man staff said had no discernible talent apart from managing his bosses. He is now in charge of keeping people out rather than encouraging them to come in. He has been Australia’s Lord Protector, ensuring that starving, desperate people don’t get in and wreck the joint. His Immigration Department has played no small part, via its detention centers and “initiatives”, in tarnishing Australia’s reputation in south-east Asia.

Among Morrison foreign policy “triumphs” was striking deals with two of south Asia’s most ruthless despots. The first was with squillionaire Prime Minister-cum-dictator Hun Sen, who’s ruled impoverished Cambodia for the past 29 years.

The former Khmer Rouge terrorist — who has murdered countless people both in and out of office — will take refugees that Australia has a legal and moral right to take under international law. In payment, we keep silent on Cambodia’s shocking human rights record. Morrison has outsourced our legal and moral obligations to a murderer to dig himself out of a political hole. And don’t think that the region’s better-run countries haven’t noticed.

In another odious barter, Australia has stayed mute on the other serial human rights abuser, former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa. In return, Sri Lanka would help us “stop the boats” — but all was not what it had seemed.

In an interview with The Australian this week, Sri Lanka’s new President Ranil Wickremesinghe said Rajapaksa had agreed to help stop boats carrying asylum seekers leaving for Australia if Canberra kept quiet about alleged abuses committed by the regime.

Wickremesinghe told the paper that Abbott’s close relationship with Rajapaksa, dumped by voters last month, was “a mystery” to Sri Lankans.

Sri Lanka’s new chief claimed that “people connected to the previous government” had taken part in people-smuggling operations.

“It was being done by people with Rajapaksa connections, but once this deal was done between Australia and the Rajapaksa government, where you looked the other way [on human rights abuses], then the secretary of defence got the navy to patrol,” he said.

“You could not have got anyone out of this country without someone in the security system looking the other way, the police or the navy.”

It does not stop there. Abbott has also insulted at least four of our biggest Asian neighbours: China, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar — or Burma, as Australian diplomats are now forced by Abbott to use, against the wishes of the country’s government.

Each day, it seems, brings a fresh revelation of just how poorly Abbott is representing Australians internationally. Let’s put to one side Abbott’s highly controversial linking of tsunami aid with clemency for the Bali pair, as others have gone there at length.

The stunning (yet somehow unsurprising) allegation that Tony Abbott wanted to unilaterally invade Iraq, coming on the back of a willingness to send 1000 troops into the civil war zone that is Ukraine, shows the scant regard he holds for the lives of Australian service people and confirmed that Julie Bishop and DFAT have been sidelined in at least some major decisions.

Every major misstep has been either a grubby deal with a despot or yet another “show of strength”. More damaging in Abbot’s dealings with the region is that these interactions are laced with cultural insensitivity and the very real sense that, yes, we do know better than the yellow and white people out there.

Tellingly, it is diplomats in the region who are concerned that the impression Abbott gives off on south-east Asian visits is that its citizens are in some way inferior. Whether he actually believes it or not, impressions last. To add to the insult, his Asian visits are marked by their brevity, creating a strong impression that he can’t wait to leave their backward little countries.

Trade agreements and defence alliances, while admirable if sound, are all part of a diplomatic day’s work, and non-trivial as they may be, it’s a well-worn playbook. Do not be fooled into thinking that this is the hard part — the real test is in measured reaction, often on the fly, to nasty surprises, and in trying to find a meeting point where the interests of Australia and its regional friends are divergent. That is where the real diplomatic rubber hits the road. So far, Australia’s PM has been found wanting.

To anyone out there who imagines that Tony Abbott — as touted by some sycophantic, lazy commentators — has been more successful abroad than at home, I’m afraid you’ve been had.

Peter Fray

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