Australia Looks Inward as Conservatives Take Over

Sunday, 08 Sep 2013 07:03 AM

 

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SYDNEY — Australian politics looks set for a period dominated by domestic concerns as new prime minister Tony Abbott seeks to move on from a vitriolic campaign with a focus on local issues, analysts said Sunday.

The conservative leader, who ended six years of Labor rule with a comprehensive victory over Kevin Rudd on Saturday, launched his term with a promise to govern for all Australians and pledging a new emphasis on issues such as roads, childcare and broadband.

Abbott's win would also likely see the seasoned political brawler adopt a more pragmatic stance as he looks to reinvent himself as a national leader, they said.

"At first take I would suggest we're going to see a far more inward-looking government than we have previously," said Norman Abjorensen, from the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific.

"I think the foreshadowed cuts to our foreign aid budget last week really put the writing on the wall that we're going to look at domestic policy as being all-important," he added, referencing Abbott's pledge to slash the equivalent of $4.2 billion from overseas development spending.

In contrast to Mandarin-speaking former diplomat Rudd and his "Australia in the Asian Century" objectives, Abbott had not shown a "flicker of interest" in foreign affairs through his political career, Abjorensen said.

Abbott was ridiculed in some quarters for describing the conflict in Syria as "baddies versus baddies" during the election race.

The one-time trainee Catholic priest has held conflicting positions on Asia, downplaying the importance of China's rise in his 2009 political manifesto "Battlelines" and emphasizing the importance of what he called the "Anglosphere."

However he vowed during the election campaign to put Asia at the center of his foreign policy agenda.

Abbott has been a combative and divisive figure in opposition and will need to convince both the electorate and his own party of his credentials for top office.

"What it will essentially mean is a transformation of this political street-fighter, someone who in some ways has never transcended the cut-and-thrust of student politics, into national statesmanship," Abjorensen said.

Abbott promised a "no surprises, no excuses" government in an open letter to the Australian people published in Sunday newspapers focused solely on domestic imperatives — slashing taxes, building roads and rolling out broadband.

He said "Operation Sovereign Borders" — his military-led initiative to turn back asylum-seeker boats from Indonesia — would be authorized on his first day of office.

Abbott has promised to make the Southeast Asian nation his first stop as prime minister -- an unusual step for a Liberal leader, with London or Washington being a more traditional choice.

But Abjorensen said Abbott would have some fence-mending to do over his plans to send Australian police to Indonesia, pay locals for information and buy up Indonesian fishing boats in a bid to stymie the people-smuggling trade, which have met resistance in Jakarta.

"I think that will be the very first test of how this government wants to be seen, wants to shape some sort of image in the immediate region," he told AFP.

Shaun Carney, politics professor at Monash University, said Abbott's time in opposition had been characterized by "power through aggression".

Now he was in office, the "hysterics" would be abandoned in favor of a more pragmatic, if not "cynical", approach on most matters except climate change, Carney said.

Business-backed Abbott has vowed to tear up Labor's pollution tax as his "first legislative priority" and threatened to call another election if he is blocked by the environmentally driven Greens party in the Senate.

Abbott has proposed a so-called "Direct Action" plan to tackle pollution in Australia -- among the world's worst per capita emitters due to its dependence on coal-fired power stations and mining industry.

The plan combines incentive payments to business to cut their emissions and a controversial soil sequestration scheme for carbon.

Greg Craven, vice chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, said Rhodes scholar Abbott was far from a typical conservative and it would be wrong to typecast him or his party.

"This is not the old caricature," said Craven. "This will be a government seeking to marshal some very different trains of thought."


© AFP 2014

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