If negative attacks on Tony Abbott did little to mask the Labor Party’s listless performance in power, infighting ensured its defeat in the Australian general election
For the Australian Labor Party, a crushing defeat on Saturday night was the finale of a tragedy in five acts. Because the result is more a repudiation of Labor infighting than endorsement of Coalition philosophy, it does not mark a shift to the right. For new Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott, the results were just rewards for leading a disciplined, stable and united team through three years of national political turmoil and global economic turbulence. In foreign policy, the results may portend subtle shifts in nuance and emphasis but not a fundamental reorientation. For India, an Abbott government is likely to provide greater ballast.
Kevin Rudd’s convincing victory in 2007 produced high initial popularity, but a shambolic management style and an autocratic-narcissistic personality were the backdrop to Act One. In 2010, with plummeting polls and an alienated cabinet, the party caucus replaced him with Julia Gillard.
Between Gillard and Rudd
Act Two was consumed by the fallout. Australia’s first woman Prime Minister never recovered legitimacy from the back-stabbing that catapulted her into the post. Mr. Rudd undermined her during the 2010 campaign and stalked and destabilised her non-stop until June 2013. She also had a tin ear, rejecting responsibility for policy errors and mismanagement. Instead of responding to voter concerns, she retreated into a gendered bunker mentality from where all criticisms were blamed on misogyny. This alienated voters even more.
Act Three opened in June when a long, unbroken sequence of disastrous polling led Labor to dump Ms Gillard and return to Mr. Rudd to limit the electoral damage. On being replaced by Mr. Rudd, she showed the grace and the dignity that he had lacked three years earlier and she notably refrained from undermining his 2013 campaign by word or deed, a contrast noted by most commentators. He was reconsidered only to be found wanting once again. The early bounce in polls soon dissipated as the old undisciplined Rudd returned and the campaign was soon in a shambles. He led Labor to its lowest vote in over a hundred years, claimed vindication nonetheless for having stopped the haemorrhaging under Ms Gillard, but will relinquish party leadership.
Act Four was an abandonment of values and principles that entrenched public perceptions that Labor has been captured by unionists and careerists who hold no principles they will not junk to cling to power. Nothing symbolised this more than the effort to outflank Mr. Abbott in heartlessness on the desperate asylum seekers coming to Australia on dangerously unseaworthy boats.
Act Five of the tragedy was cementing a reputation for policy chaos and incompetent management of the ship of state. Labor’s dominant campaign theme was a relentlessly negative attack on Mr. Abbott that preyed on people’s fears. Labor failed to give voters any reason to vote for them instead of against the Coalition.
The more the people saw Mr. Abbott, however, the more they were reassured by the calm and steady performance of a committed family man. Highlighting Labor as at war with itself, he pointedly asked how a party that could not govern itself could be trusted to run the country. His sharpest product differentiation was on promises to repeal a carbon tax that was a potent symbol of a broken election promise by Ms Gillard, to stop the tide of asylum seeker boats and to jettison a mining tax. He also intends to return the budget to surplus, reduce the national debt and in general shrink government and strengthen efficient governance.
One of the few foreign policy issues to intrude in the election campaign was Syria. Mr. Rudd signed on early and strongly to U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy of military strikes on Syria as punishment for its alleged use of chemical weapons on August 21. Counter-intuitively, Mr. Abbott proved to be the more circumspect and cautious in recognising the complexities and risks and promised to keep Australia out of any military action.
The Abbott government will likely invest more in defence and key bilateral relations and downplay multilateralism. His first official visits as prime minister will be to Asian not western capitals. Julie Bishop, the incoming foreign minister-to-be, has promised a new Colombo Plan of two-way educational exchanges with Asia as a signature new policy.
Looking to India
Australia’s own “pivot” to India had begun under the Howard government but was interrupted by Labor Party restrictions on selling uranium to non-NPT countries. It took Labor five years to change policy. The new foreign secretary is of ethnic Indian background, took up the post in December after a successful stint as High Commissioner to India, and has previously served as head of Howard’s international policy unit. But if India’s economic future is mortgaged to bad governance rooted in populist politics, Australia, like others, will return India to the basket of benign neglect.
(Ramesh Thakur is director, Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation & Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University, Canberra.)