Tony Abbott is set to be sworn in as Australia’s new conservative prime minister this week, replacing outgoing Labor leader Kevin Rudd and ending six years of Labor party rule.
Following a landslide victory on September 7, the PM elect has already said his top priorities are to abolish Australia’s carbon emissions tax and to stop asylum-seekers arriving by boat.
Significantly, he has also made clear that Australia will maintain strong links with its Asia Pacific neighbours, with an emphasis on China and Indonesia.
As the last elections have illustrated, Australian politics are dramatic, passionate and almost Shakespearian in the endless narrative of unexpected betrayal, ruthlessness, revenge and the search for redemption.
The run-up to the polls was dominated by the battle between Abbott and Rudd but also by the even tougher and continuing saga of hate and revenge between Rudd and Julia Gillard, the former Labor prime minister who Rudd unceremoniously — and very dramatically — kicked out of office in June this year.
Not many tears were shed for Gillard since she had played a similar dirty trick on Rudd in June 2010. Australian politics, it can be said, leave Bollywood drama in the shade.
Australia has come a long way in the last few years. Although the Australian economy may not be growing as it fast as it did in recent years, its steady 2.6 percent GDP growth rates for the year are still higher than for any other developed nation.
The country’s economic performance is certainly a far cry from the 1980s when Lee Kuan Yew, the outspoken former prime minister of Singapore, warned that the country was living way beyond its means and in danger of becoming the “poor white trash” of Asia.
Gone also are the days when Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad refused to accept Australian membership of Asian groupings because, as he insisted “they are Europeans, they cannot be Asians”.
The feisty Malaysian leader may not have changed his mind, but his successors certainly have – as have all other Asian countries, including China.
Australia’s tough line on asylum seekers and refugees creates unease in Asia. As Jane McAdam of the University of New South Wales says many of the country’s’ initiatives including the mandatory detention for all unlawful arrivals, the excision of the whole Australian mainland from Australia’s “migration zone, the removal of boat arrivals to offshore processing centers in small Pacific island countries, with no prospect for resettlement in Australia, are against the spirit of international law.
And as she points out, such measures are surprising in a country as wealthy, multicultural and big as Australia. But there is more to the country that muddled asylum policies.
Over recent years Australia has impressed by making a determined bid to become serious players in the Asia-Pacific– or the Indo-Pacific as the Australians describe the region. Analysts say Australia is pulling its weight as a global middle power and also a Southern Hemisphere power.
As Benjamin Reilly of Murdoch University underlines, “While engagement with East Asia and the United States remains the main game, Australian ‘soft power’ is increasing across the globe’s southern segment in a range of areas, from aid and trade to scientific research to peacekeeping.”
Significantly, the G20 summit in 2014 will be held in Brisbane. In Brussels, Australia has stalwartly pushed for stronger European Union engagement with Asia.
Australia along with New Zealand joined the Asia Europe Meetings (ASEM) in 2010, many years after their application. Their membership has certainly helped to increase the credibility of ASEM and bring new perspectives into the club.
In recent months, Australia has published a voluminous white paper on its Asian connections, urging students to learn more Asian languages, including of course Chinese.
Relations with China may be volatile but exports of raw materials to the country have kept the Australian economy on an even keel.
Not surprisingly, Abbott has said his first travel priorities would be Indonesia, China, Japan and South Korea, rather than traditional and long-standing allies like the United States and Britain.
“Only after our regional and trading partners have been suitably attended to would I make the traditional trips to Washington and London,” he said, adding: “Decisions which impact on our national interests will be made in Jakarta, in Beijing, in Tokyo, in Seoul, as much as they will be made in Washington.