On Saturday Australia will go to the polls. Prime minister Kevin Rudd – recently returned to office in place of the deposed Julia Gillard – has called an election that promises to set an important course for the country in the period ahead. Facing off against Mr Rudd and the Labor party is the Liberal-National Coalition led by Tony Abbott.
This is a contest that bears close scrutiny because Australia’s importance and stature has risen in Asia and the world in the past two decades. The country has proved to be one of the most effective in terms of balancing its strong political and security ties with the US with its robust commercial and economic interactions with China.
The election has been hard-fought – the bitterness between the two parties is evident – but the US will do well with either party in power. Still, a closer look at the respective leaders is in order.
It is not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that, despite some personal foibles, Mr Rudd represents in many respects a reincarnation of Winston Churchill in the region. More than any other Asian leader, in the past decade he has provided a clear and resonant strategic framework for integrating and engaging (and, when necessary, confronting) a rising China. He has understood with unusual clarity that the country’s ascendancy is the defining feature of modern global politics, and that every manner of statecraft must be adapted accordingly. With an occasional Churchillian flair for drama and rhetoric, he has shaped contemporary assumptions about Beijing’s leadership and the appropriate approaches to configuring multilateral diplomacy – such as the recently recrafted East Asia Summit. Not since Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew during the Vietnam war has a leader had a bigger behind-the-scenes impact on American thinking on Asia than Mr Rudd.
Mr Abbott, although occasionally underestimated, has a former boxer’s perseverance that commands respect. It is impossible not to focus on his hands in any meeting with him: they are hard from pummelling his opponents in the ring during his student days. Extremely fit, he radiates a personal discipline that is readily apparent. His ruggedness is undoubtedly appealing to a modern Australian political psychology that is urban-dwelling but still animated by the outback. In a choice between great powers, do not be surprised if the Anglophile Mr Abbott chooses Britain over both the US and China.
The campaign has been fought over issues of energy regulation, the handling of boat people and refugees, and ultimately whether Australia is ready for change. The country’s politics have often followed an unusual inverse relationship: the better the times, the nastier the politics. Australia has experienced remarkable prosperity in the past several years, fuelled largely by massive exports of raw materials to the behemoth Chinese economy to the north. Mining cities such as Perth on the west coast can feel a little like San Francisco during the Californian gold rush. Largely unstated in the campaign, however, is that a slowdown is coming, with China’s engine of growth running out of steam. This will probably have significant implications for Australia’s growth, and hence its politics.
Another curious feature of the debate is that both sides agree that the country inhabits an uncertain and potentially dangerous neighbourhood – yet defence spending has fallen precipitously in recent years. Both sides have attempted to address the issue through fancy accounting rather than serious proposals for spending. Richard Armitage, a former US deputy secretary of state, and the acknowledged godfather of the bilateral relationship, recently complained: “Australia is making the assumption that the US will always be there for her, but you are also saying that Australia does not want to pull its fair share when it comes to defence.”
Americans generally do not take sides in the elections of friendly nations, and most certainly the bilateral relationship will continue to thrive under either party. There are critical decisions that hang in the balance, to be sure – on energy and climate change; on relations with Indonesia; on the balance between the US and China in Australia’s foreign policy; and on defence spending – but the Pacific ties that bind the US and Australia are perhaps the closest on the planet today.
Yet it is undoubtedly the case that Mr Rudd has left a pair of ocean liner-sized shoes to be filled in his capacity as Asian statesman. At a time when the US is entering the next phase of its “pivot” to Asia, here’s hoping that whoever prevails continues to help Australia punch above its weight. And don’t underestimate Mr Abbott’s upper cut.