Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott arrived in Japan to talk about a fair trade agreement with that country which would hopefully have good outcomes for both of their economies. Abbott is expected to push for a reduction in tariffs levied on imported Australian beef while the Japanese want the removal of the five percent tariff on Japanese cars. For Australians, removing that tariff would mean an average $1,000 reduction in car costs when they buy brands like Mazda or Nissan. The prime minister is hoping that a success in Japan will distract Australians from the tough time he has been having recently and bring a bit of popularity back for his Liberal Party.
Despite his successes as the lead government official in the hunt for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the good impression he has made there, his popularity at home has been waning. After a series of misfortunes like a corruption hearing around one of his ministers and missteps like the unpopular re-introduction of knights and dames to Australia, the Australian public’s impression of Abbott is becoming worse and worse. Disillusioned with Abbott and his ruling party, voters in the Western Australia re-run election swung by 5.5 percent away from his Liberal Party, and handed a majority of their parliamentary seats to other parties. While he remains optimistic, the prime minister needs a political home run in order to get back a little of his political mojo, especially if he plans on scrapping the carbon tax in Australia any time soon.
A good outcome in Japan would also help his business reputation. After running in the last election on a platform to scrap the carbon tax, certain business interests in Australia have asked that the government go beyond its campaign promises when it comes to making business easier in Australia. The oil and gas industry in particular has suggested that any policy that would decrease project costs (like the carbon tax), reduce union power, and boost flexibility for businesses would be welcome. The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association has warned that the country may miss out on billions of dollars in projects if the situation does not change.
This comes around the time that the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has called for an abolition of the minimum wage, which is one of the highest in the world. Ideologically, the IPA has close ties to Abbott’s Liberal party and it makes no bones about the fact that this policy recommendation comes out of that ideology. The idea of a “living wage” is prevalent in Australian history and politics, a fixture of the system since 1907. It is unlikely that the Australian public would allow it to be abolished easily. Nevertheless, doing so would be in line with Abbott’s party ideology and speculation about the future roams free.
The prime minister, then, is under pressure at home, not just for his past actions, but for the possibility of where he and his party are going next. His trip to Japan may provide a welcome vacation from such talk, but it has its own difficulties, too. Tony Abbott himself does not have an extensive background in foreign diplomacy, so these trade talks in Japan will be a true test of his abilities as he tries to work out an agreement.
There is little doubt that greater access to markets will be good for the economies of both countries, but this is not the only trade deal in the works. Both Japan and Australia have been part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations for the last four years. This little known agreement, which includes the United States, would affect how governments prosecutor illegal downloading and some are warning that it would increase costs on things like medicine or video games and could even compromise existing environmental protections. Japan may be reticent to deal too easily with the visiting prime minister if they do not want to set precedents that would affect their position in the TPP talks.
However, this deal has been so long in negotiations that it takes a back-burner to other issues, such as Australia’s involvement in stopping the Japanese whaling practices. A court at the Hague ruled that Japan’s whaling practices were not scientific and therefore had to cease in the Southern Ocean. The decision was spearheaded by Australia and shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfuss represented the case. While the decision does not affect Japan’s whaling in the Northern Ocean, it was a difficult pill to swallow and there has been no word as of yet whether it will be an issue during Tony Abbott’s visit to Japan. The possibility that this might derail negotiations for the prime minister is an unknown quantity, but it will certainly need to be addressed very diplomatically if it comes up at all.
Abbott will want nothing to interfere with his much needed success in Japan, but there are at least two issues (the TPP and the Hague’s whaling ruling) that could pose problems for him. Without an extensive background in foreign diplomacy, this visit to Japan looks like what it is: a big test of the man’s mettle. A fair trade agreement with Japan would be a huge boon to the Australian economy and failure would expose Tony Abbott to more ridicule, but while he is in Japan, hope runs high that he will be able to make good out of the situation. If he does not, then the swing his Liberal party saw in the Western Australia elections may just be bigger at the next vote.
Opinion By Lydia Webb