Stay at home

Thursday, 7 October 2010 

Arguably the key question in the Gillard-Abbott spat about his skipping a trip to see the troops in Afghanistan is not why he did. Those British Tories can be an intimidating lot and it is wise to be in top form. Especially if they remind him that they were able to at least cobble together a Coalition from a party to the left of UK Labour whereas he couldn’t even cobble one together with those from his own side. Anyway, if he did drop in on the troops, a soldier might ask him if more should be sent there, and by the sounds of it, Abbott’s not that sure.

No, surely the more interesting question of all of this is why did Gillard invite him? A visit to the troops is precisely the sort of photo ops that Prime Ministers usually grab with both hands. Being photographed with troops gives authority and all the benefits of power that only Prime Ministers can have. Sharing such limelight with an opposition leader, especially on her first visit as PM, seems like a strange act of generosity.

It became a bit clearer though when she moved on to Brussels and was interviewed on The 7.30 Report on Tuesday night. Kerry O’Brien asked what would have been a rather patronising question to any Prime Minister of Australia, let alone as smart as Gillard, but incredibly, was taken seriously:

KERRY O’BRIEN: This is your first overseas trip as Prime Minister. There must be something of a sharp
learning curve in all this for you. All domestic portfolios until now; suddenly you’re meeting 11 world leaders in a day. Have you found your comfort zone yet?

JULIA GILLARD: Oh, look, Kerry, I’m obviously working my way through. Kerry, I’m just going to be really upfront about this: foreign policy is not my passion. It’s not what I’ve spent my life doing. You know, I came into politics predominantly to make a difference to opportunity questions, particularly make a difference in education. So, yes, if I had a choice I’d probably more be in a school watching kids learn to read in Australia than here in Brussels at international meetings. That’s what took me into politics, that kind of education work. But obviously in this role I will serve as Prime Minister doing the full job, and the full job includes coming to places like Brussels to be a feisty advocate for Australia’s national interest. And that’s what I will do. It’s what I’m doing here.

Talking about her international role as head of government in Australia as though it was part of the dross of doing the “full job”, and something she needs to “work through” is strange enough. Doing it about meetings in Brussels of which a major purpose was to discuss Australia’s current commitment in what is proving a bloody military conflict is stranger still. Abbott would rather be in Birmingham talking to English Tories, Gillard would rather be home listening to kids reading. Are we at war in Afghanistan or not?

Greg Sheridan thinks that Gillard is distancing herself from Rudd just as Howard was from Keating. There is a point in this but a couple of things to note. Howard did start off like that, preferring to focus on his domestic programme. When it became clear he didn’t really have much of one, he looked overseas to stop the drift, playing games in East Timor and then finally hitching his caboose to Bush’s War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq.

The problem of authority for our political class is not discussed very much in polite circles of Australian political commentary, let alone the idea of looking for it overseas. But it has been a fact of political life since Federation and especially now when there is so little domestic program to hang a hat on. The good thing about mucking about overseas is that you can stuff up and no one seems to know, nor mind, if you do – as long as you stay very close to a major power while you do it.

It was why no matter how disastrously wrong Iraq went, it was never a political problem for Howard until the US began to think so too, something Howard got so wrong when he made his jibe about the terrorists wanting an Obama win. Since then the political problem in Australia is how to adapt to the loss of direction from the US, post-Iraq.

Rudd’s solution was to latch on to an international agenda that arose in the vacuum and even presented the US as a problem, climate change. The problem was that although the US under Obama tried to tag along, they could never give it direction and no one else could either, and after Copenhagen Rudd was left with nothing.

This is the second point about Gillard’s repeating Howard’s reaction to Keating. Rudd going overseas was not seen as a political problem. It was almost the opposite; he lost the reason to after Copenhagen. For the last six months he pretty well never travelled aboard at all and it didn’t do him a bit of good. Backing away from what had been the greatest moral challenge left Rudd with no authority over the public, and so over the party bosses that had hated him all along.

As she has done with the minority government, Gillard has made a virtue of a necessity and claimed that she doesn’t want to be overseas anyway, and has no appetite for even taking political advantage of Afghanistan, basically because there is none to be had. In fact, if anything she would rather share the blame.

Will this work? It shouldn’t, but there is the unknown of what happens to the party even more incapable of living without US leadership than the ALP, the Liberals. The press are not really making much of this, but Abbott’s gaffe over Afghanistan is probably a major blow to his leadership inside the party. Equivocation over a US led military conflict is unheard of with the Liberals and even Abbott’s recent backing away from building up presence there is not good news. Not because Afghanistan is a vote winner, far from it, but because for the Liberals, fretting about a brand that Abbott was supposed to address, clinging close to what ever military action the US is up to is about all that is left.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 7 October 2010.

Filed under International relations

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13 responses to “Stay at home”

  1. jrbarch on 7th October 2010 10:39 am

    Dear PS,

    I think you are correct in that the political class are always trying to find ‘loud’ announcements to prove their questionable legitimacy: could you expand on what in your view would actually do so, legitimately?

    Addressing the 13% under-utilised or unemployed of the Aus. workforce with a job guarantee would be a good start, since as a sovereign nation that issues its own currency and can never become insolvent – we can both afford it – and make the political decision not to issue debt (corporate welfare) to match the new money (new net financial assets for the private sector) created. This could lead to new savings, new demand and investment, and new better paying sustainable jobs in the private sector replacing the buffered public sector job guarantee placements. A Job Guarantee is best advocated in Aus. by Prof. Bill Mitchell – Billy Blog: for the information of your readers.

    Maybe then, with full employment (which used to be the government’s mandate and still is by law), we could call the government legitmate! And use the monetary system to access real resources wisely!

    Cheers …

  2. James on 7th October 2010 11:19 am

    Yes, Abbott not going to Afghanistan looks like a cut and run. Remember, it was the Liberals who committed us to Afghanistan in the first place. The editorial in the Herald-Sun about his non-attendance was remarkably scathing. They declared it would not be forgotten.

    His jetlag rationale was beyond lame and increased the contempt for his no-show in Afghanistan. Why should the Liberals care about the British Tories? Aren’t they just a bunch of Artistocrats who do bad drag? Surely only Downer would sport the conference over the troops under these circumstances.

    You get the impression that this incident has been a tipping point for elements of the media, who now appear to believe that Abbott’s election campaign was a con. If he could spend the final 36 hours of the campaign without sleep, then why couldn’t he stop over in Afghanistan and then have a good sleep on the RAAF flight over to Britain? It’s hardly as if he travelled in cattle class on a Qantas flight like most of us would have to. The RAAF would have provided decent bedding.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 7th October 2010 4:53 pm

    Nice idea jr, but ain’t gonna happen.

    It’s not so much the public impact, but the internal party protocol that’s been breached that makes Abbott look ‘unsound’. Mumble notes that history suggests Abbott won’t make the next election. This pretty well assures it.

  4. adamite on 7th October 2010 6:24 pm

    The problem for the Liberals is that his minders cant keep their man on a leash for a whole term of Government like they did in the election – so the inevitable gaffes will continue from their erratic pugilist.

    I’m not sure about Gillard. These recent comments only seem to confirm her inaugural leadership emphasis on ‘homefront’ priorities like employment, education etc – unlike say Hawke who combined his industrial relations interests with other, more outwardly focussed passions (anti-apartheid etc.)

  5. tokenyank on 8th October 2010 11:07 am

    I think that you are mistaken to classify the Liberal Democrats as left of Labour, although you may have been able to do so when Charles Kennedy was leader. Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, David Laws, (and to an extent, Vince Cable) are all essentially market-liberal yellow Tories that happen to be Europhiles. While the Beveridgeite wing of the party is still large (if not the majority of caucus), those LibDems who disproportionately fill the Cabinet and undersecretary positions (and thus have actual power) are largely from the “Orange Book” market liberal wing of the party.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 8th October 2010 4:51 pm

    Yes, I was probably taking a bit of a liberty (it made the rhetoric flow easier), but they were to the left of Labour on things like nucleur weapons, Iraq and military spending. Also more liberal on social issues. They were pretty similar on spending and cuts at the last election, but of course, as you say, the market-liberals took over after the election. They’re a funny lot.

  7. Cavitation on 9th October 2010 8:44 am

    Perhaps this is recognition that foreign policy has become a minefield for any political party in Australia. There is clearly not likely to be any useful progress about climate change; the developing and first world nations are unable to reach any common ground. The Americans are focused on conducting unwinnable and unresolvable wars to justify their huge military expenditures. There is no upside likely from any foreign developments for Australia.

    So the parties have to concentrate on domestic matters. The Labor party is being squeezed from both the Green left and the economic fundamentalist right. The Liberals are a captive of multi-millionaire business interests and so are unable to adopt popular policies in tune with the current century. Any capable Liberal supporter is not interested in going into parliament, when there are easier pickings in business. Labor has become a clan, with any new parliamentarian being related to a previous or current member of parliament.

    So we have parliament full of second rate people, forced to fiddle with domestic issues, so as to seem relevant to the public.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 9th October 2010 9:09 pm

    A reasonable summing up. I think the inability to make anything political about what is going overseas is unprecedented. But then so is the level of disarray of the power that Australia relies on to do so.

  9. Graeme on 9th October 2010 9:42 pm

    Nice point about Gillard distinguishing herself from Rudd. But it’s not just branding or pandering to isolationist thinking. I suspect she was genuine. Rudd’s continuing spectre is a less a problem than his foreign affairs ventures are a blessing. It keeps him occupied, often away and, best of all, she can (magnanimously, given she once stood with a knife to him) leave it to him, he who the public thinks is the Expert.

    Mumbles, as you call him, found an echo in Fran Kelly, berating Gillard for not dressing up as the Emperor and using foreign affairs as a mantle to look Incumbentish.
    But her disinterest in international relations suits her tactically and strategically. We really aren’t quite ready to see a woman as our national leader so she has no choice but to play her natural hand, as a charming if empty facilitator. A diplomat at home if not abroad.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 10th October 2010 7:16 am

    I personally don’t think it’s a choice. Gillard is facing the same problem Abbott faces and Rudd did as well in the final months; without a clear US agenda there is no real basis for an Australian foreign policy – at least there hasn’t been till now.

  11. James on 11th October 2010 10:26 am

    The general theme of the comments section of this article is that the political times are depressing in Australia.

  12. Riccardo on 11th October 2010 11:26 am

    Just some thoughts on foreign ‘leadership’

    Is Obama suffering the “Jimmy Carter drift” where clear policy doesn’t come out of the US? Democrat presidents seem to win convincingly but face a well-armed Repub backlash. So while it looked like Obama could make progress on Dem policy he couldn’t.

    I think the UK is also drifting although its winner take all political system gives no second chance to an opposition redoubt like the US does.

    As for India and China, I think India has been brought down a peg or two in their own internal estimations – the Delhi games ain’t the 2008 Beijing standard. China is going through transition

    Rumours are floating around HK that Jiang Zemin has died – the Communists will pick an announcement date of their choosing.

    We can see other evidence of drift in the US alliance, especially in Japan and Korea where that sort of clarity is needed.

  13. john Willoughby on 14th October 2010 7:51 am

    No domestic financial crisis has left our polity with
    no narrative, unlike our allies in the WOT whose electors
    are more concerned with the GFC .
    This situation is likely to change rapidly.
    The recipe would seem to be ….
    Take one well hung parliament
    garnished with a liberal dose of sour grapes
    a slice of rampant ox
    some rodent sperm for texture
    and then simply add water
    and bring to the boil
    will require constant stirring…..

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