Australia after Abbott to be Steady on India but Expect More Nuance in Asia

While a clear recognition of the strategic importance of India is accepted across the Australian political spectrum, indications are that Turnbull will be more sophisticated in his dealings with both China and the United States

Malcolm Turnbull at his swearing-in ceremony with Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove. Credit: Auspic/Commonwealth of Australia

Malcolm Turnbull at his swearing-in ceremony with Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove. Credit: Auspic/Commonwealth of Australia

The latest ‘democratic coup’ in Canberra in which Tony Abbott has made way for Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister is beginning to make Australia’s political system look more and more like Italy’s.  The revolving door of Australia’s leaders over the last six years is a big contrast with its long history of political stability.

In recent times, Australia has had a succession of leaders who for various reasons have not been able to bring the public along with their visions, including the need for further tough reforms. This has led some to argue that Australia’s ability to implement ongoing structural reforms, which underpinned a remarkable 25 years of continuous economic growth, had run out of steam.

So where does this latest change lead Australia?

The changeover may have occurred within the space of a few hours, but in reality it had been coming for a long time.  The Liberal Party was staring down the barrel of almost certain defeat at next year’s general election.

Abbott was the most conservative leader in Australia’s history. Although he won an election only two years ago, he has always been deeply unpopular with the Australian public. His poor political judgment and a leadership style that relied on command rather than persuasion only made him ever more unpopular.

Turnbull, a sophisticated and charismatic ex-lawyer and banker, represents a significant change in both style and ideology. Turnbull’s social liberalism, including support for gay marriage and a recognition of the realities of climate change, puts him in much greater tune with the electorate. At the same time, his agenda of economic reform makes him popular with business.

But leadership style is just as important as policies. Turnbull has come to power with an avowal of the need for leaders to treat the electorate as intelligent, to properly explain problems and opportunities and to bring the Australian public along with a new round of tough economic reforms. In making this promise Turnbull is harking back to the style of Australia’s great reforming leaders of recent decades: Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard. Turnbull’s political future will likely depend on whether he can deliver on this promise.

What this means for Asia and India

Analysts are still trying to figure out the foreign policy consequences of Malcolm Turnbull’s ascendancy. Julie Bishop has done an excellent job as Australia’s foreign minister over the last two years and she will likely stay in that role, providing an element of continuity to Australia’s foreign policy.

HERE TODAY, GONE TOMMORROW: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Credit: PTI Photo by Shirish Shete

HERE TODAY, GONE TOMMORROW: File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Tony Abbott at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. Credit: PTI Photo by Shirish Shete

For one thing, this leadership change is unlikely to have any material effect on the Australia-India relationship.  A clear recognition of the strategic importance of India is accepted across the Australian political spectrum and moves to improve the relationship over the last decade or more have not been owned or driven by any particular leader. Any ideological affinity between Abbott and Modi, if it ever existed in reality, had little real impact on the underlying strategic imperatives for both countries to further develop the relationship.

But we will see some foreign policy changes under the new administration. For one thing, Turnbull’s foreign policy is likely to be more nuanced and less ideologically driven than his predecessor. Indeed, Abbott’s pugnacious style and ideology has not served Australia terribly well. His views on Australia’s relationship with Asia often seemed unsophisticated and he has been ham-handed in his dealings with important neighbours such as Indonesia. His talk of an “Anglosphere” often sounded like a throwback to the 1950s. He also seemed far too quick to pursue military responses to problems.

Under Abbott’s leadership, Australia has been an enthusiastic supporter of the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, and Australia’s military commitment there has only increased as his personal popularity has fallen. Only a few days ago Abbott committed Australian forces to Syria’s civil war, justifying it on the grounds of a “request” from Washington that he himself had engineered. It seemed that Australia was heading into a khaki election driven by Syrian jihadists. In contrast, Turnbull has made it clear that he is not convinced by Abbott’s claims that IS poses any existential threat to Australia, and he will likely be cautious about Australia’s future military presence in the Middle East.

More nuance with US, China

The indications are that Turnbull will also be more sophisticated in his dealings with both China and the United States.   For example, Turnbull has flagged that China’s financial troubles and its imperatives to restructure its economy not only represents risks for Australia but also some unique opportunities. He has also argued in favour of including China in the Trans Pacific Partnership arrangement. Although this may be ambitious, it does signal that he recognises upsides in the changes that are occurring in the region, in addition to the downsides.

Turnbull is a strong supporter of the US alliance. Abbott’s unreflective acceptance of US pronouncements on Asian security concerns arguably reduced Australia’s influence with Washington in dealing with the South China Sea. In contrast, Turnbull is likely to present a somewhat more nuanced view of how to respond to China’s aspirations and its assertive behaviour. While supporting the US rebalance to Asia and its central role in regional stability, Turnbull he will likely do so with a particularly Australian stamp.  That would probably be a good result for Australia and the region.

Dr. David Brewster is a Distinguished Research Fellow with the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne.   He has written extensively on Indian Ocean security and India’s security relationships in the Indo-Pacific.  His most recent book is India’s Ocean: the Story of India’s Bid for Regional Leadership

Credit for featured image of Malcolm Turnbull: Venl/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

  • ashok759

    What a simple, workman like swearing in ceremony !