The Australian prime minister, by all accounts, is having his best week as prime minister while he is away on his Asian tour, meeting with leaders and talking business. He rapidly closed free trade agreements with Japan and South Korea before moving on to China where tensions are high, treating the Australian prime minister to his biggest test of foreign diplomacy so far. Tony Abbott talked about the importance of trust between China and Australia, but his own footing in Australia is slipping as the voters there show their disapproval of some of his policies.
A sign of the movement towards a trade deal with China was Abbott’s formal invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to speak to a joint session of the Australian parliament when he visits as part of the G20 summit. The invitation comes as a gesture of good will between the two leaders as Abbott looks to close the trade deal as early as November. The Aussie prime minister also briefed the Chinese president on the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which carried over 100 Chinese passengers. Australia has been leading that search which is located in an area of the Indian Ocean relatively close to the Australian city of Perth.
Interestingly, Abbott used his country’s role in that search to point to a change in the relationship between China and Australia. He talked about what he called a “strategic pessimism” that many countries have towards Asia. Ostensibly, this pessimism is related to the nature of Asian political systems, some of which are communist, which is a feared political ideology by many in the West. It is also about the stability of Asian countries, many of which have only had good economies in the last 50 years. China’s economic rise has been one of the most rapid in history and Australia has hopes to share in some of the progress due to proximity and the free trade agreement now under negotiation.
The change in that strategic pessimism rests on the close relationships that are being forged between leaderships through the shared tragedy of flight MH370. In sharing not only the burden of the search and the loss (Australia had five passengers on the flight), Australia and China have become closer and reached an understanding of each other not as oppositional entities, but as cooperative ones. This can only be good for them, since both are keen on seeing what a trade deal can do for their economies. But Abbott, who has been the primary country leader for much of this search, has emphasized not his role, but the relationship with China coming out the search, which is a change from strategic pessimism to strategic optimism.
The key to progress in this new point of view is, according to Abbott, trust. He forthrightly declared Australia’s trust in China, an important step for the country that sees about 60 billion dollars’ worth of investment from China every year. Having faith in the country that gives the most benefit is good, but Abbott’s characterization is a one-sided picture of the situation at hand. Australia may have trust and confidence in China, but does China have confidence in Australia? More importantly, does China trust the prime minister they are dealing with?
There is an old maxim that says, “To truly know a man, look at how he treats people who can do nothing for him.” Right now, China knows that Abbott is invested in gaining their good will and if they know this adage, they will be looking to see what the character is of the freshman prime minister they are dealing with. Tony Abbott has a relatively slim experience on international diplomacy, so the best place to look is at his record at home and that may cause some problems because while he is talking trust to China, the trust of the Australian people is slipping when it comes to the prime minister himself.
There have been a well-catalogued series of missteps for Abbott in the last month. Notably, his re-introduction of knights and dames brought wide-spread ridicule and dislike, even from within his own party. Moreover, claims of corruption that led to the suspension of an assistant treasurer and the outrageous move to try and change long-standing anti-discrimination laws on race were serious problems with voters. Basically, Abbott’s ruling Coalition is struggling to keep its head above the waters of voter disapproval and Abbott himself has suffered for these mistakes.
Popularity, however, is not the best judge of character. It is in policy that the Chinese must look to see what kind of man they are dealing with exactly. Even that does not bode well for Tony Abbott. While he has been out of the country, stories have surfaced that at least two important campaign promises could be violated by the Coalition. In 2013 when they were running for office, the Coalition and Abbott promised that two things would not happen under their governance: there would be no changes to pensions for seniors and the state-funded news channel ABC would not see any budget cuts.
For a party running on cutting costs, the promise regarding pensions was an important step in getting the support of older voters. Tony Burke, the opposition party’s finance spokesman said that the Coalition would face a serious backlash if it breached this campaign promise. Burke, however, did not float an alternative solution to pension-related budget problems as he and his party are still awaiting the release of the Coalition’s first budget proposal. This discussion over changing the retirement age before the budget has actually been put forth, however, does not point to a strong will when it comes to keeping promises.
The other issue at hand is the ABC’s budget. This is a slightly more complex issue because the promise not to cut the ABC’s budget was elicited over concerns that the Coalition might try to curtail what it sees as a bias against them. In a recent poll, between 35 and 46 percent of Coalition voters see a bias or political imbalance against their party in the ABC’s programming. The conservative leaning newspaper, The Australian, did a good job of trying to show how this bias affects programming by critiquing a recent broadcast of the political question and answer program, Q and A. While analysts and critics are arguing over this bias, however, the ruling party has a promise to keep that they will not interfere with the channel and it looks doubtful that they will keep that promise.
These promises and the issues of the last month have led to a dip in the popularity of the Coalition with Australian voters. At the moment, the Coalition is trailing its opposition by four points in recent polls. The problems often cited as the cause of this dip in the polls are that the Abbott government is seen as oddly inept (knights and dames have little to do with policy) and even untrustworthy, as the issue of pensions and the ABC shows. A Chinese government looking at the situation in Australia would see a prime minister who is disliked by his people and is, in a large way, untrusted.
Is this the kind of man that China wants to make a deal with? While a free trade agreement with Australia may be beneficial to both countries, the risks may outweigh the benefits for China. As it stands now, the Asian country is bargaining from a position of power. It is Australia that wants a slice of their economic pie and China may decide not to give it to them. Tony Abbott has used the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight as a basis for promoting trust between Australia and China, but the trust of his own electorate in him is slipping back home in Australia, posing potential problems for his negotiations abroad.
Opinion By Lydia Webb