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                                                                                                                           Asean Affairs October 9, 2013  

Critical Questions: Australia's New Cabinet

Ernest Z. Bower (@BowerCSIS) and Christopher Doyle

Australian voters selected a new government on September 7, electing the Liberal-National coalition that campaigned on a pro-business platform. Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott replaced Labor’s Kevin Rudd as prime minister. Abbott, whose Liberals are politically the more conservative of the two primary Australian parties, has announced his new leadership team.

As an anchor ally of the United States in the Indo-Pacific, Australia’s governance is no small issue for Washington. Expect a high degree of continuity when it comes to Australia’s foreign, trade, and investment policies.

The extent to which Australia’s new government can relate to Asia and work well with key partners will relate directly to U.S. interests. It will determine how much the alliance can help the United States effectively follow through on its rebalancing toward the region. It is therefore important to look at Abbott’s new team in that context.

Q1: Who are the major players in Australia’s new cabinet?

A1: Incoming foreign minister Julie Bishop, though not tapped as deputy prime minister, is arguably the most high-profile member of the new cabinet. She was deputy opposition leader throughout the Liberal Party’s six years in opposition and played a key role in attacking the former Labor governments of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Bishop is known for her talent in navigating political and business circles, as well as for her ability to adapt to changing circumstances. A good listener and decisive policymaker, Bishop has the right touch and background to be an effective leader in Asia.

David Johnston, a Liberal Party senator from Western Australia, is the new minister for defense. A towering figure with a gritty sense of pragmatism, Johnston previously served as shadow minister of defense when the coalition was in opposition. Johnston will work well with U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel. Like Australia’s former defense minister and current ambassador to the United States Kim Beazley, Johnston is a champion of the U.S. alliance. He has actively promoted an expanded presence for U.S. marines in western and northern Australia.

Joe Hockey is the new treasurer, now tasked with steering Australia’s economy through the end of the mining boom that fed solid growth for the past decade and helped the country weather the global economic slowdown recession-free. A fiscal moderate, he also faces the challenge of delivering on the Liberal-National coalition’s campaign pledge to return the federal budget to surplus without cutting too many government services.

Malcolm Turnbull takes over as the new communications minister. Turnbull was opposition leader from 2008 to 2009 before being deposed by Abbott. Now that Turnbull is in government, his primary responsibility is to implement the Coalition’s alternative to the former government’s national broadband network, which he has repeatedly attacked as overpriced.

Scott Morrison has become the minister for immigration and border protection—a key post for the fulfillment of Abbott’s “stop the boats” election promise to curb asylum seeker arrivals in Australia. He will be overseeing the controversial Operation Sovereign Borders, a new policy that will see the Australian Navy intercept asylum seeker boats coming to Australia and turn them back to Indonesia.

Q2: What foreign policy changes might we expect from the new government?

A2: There is a high degree of bipartisanship and continuity in Australian foreign policy and therefore dramatic changes from the Abbott government are unlikely. The bilateral relationship with the United States will remain a top priority. That relationship should benefit from Australian plans to incrementally increase military spending to two percent of gross domestic product, addressing criticisms that the country has been free riding on the U.S. security umbrella in the Indo-Pacific.

Australian policy toward ASEAN got a boost when Bishop announced that the Department of Foreign Affairs would send a dedicated ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. This is a policy step the United States and Japan had been encouraging Australia to take.

Policy toward the Pacific appears to be a more mixed bag under Abbott. The most significant positive change is likely to be normalization of ties with Fiji, the legwork for which was begun under the previous government. In a speech to the Australian Business Forum in July, Bishop announced that a coalition government would restore diplomatic relations with Fiji, which currently faces sanctions as a consequence of not holding promised elections in 2009. With the adoption of a new constitution in September and elections planned in 2014, the question appears to be when, not whether, rapprochement will take place.

But Australian policy toward the Pacific as a whole is set to suffer from a proposed foreign aid budget cut of $4.2 billion. The post of minister for international development, recently created by the Labor government, has been abolished and the Australia Agency for International Development, or AusAID, will be absorbed into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Bishop’s policy of “aid for trade” suggests a greater focus on foreign assistance that relates to international trade, causing fear among non-governmental organizations that far less attention and resources will be directed to humanitarian concerns. As the largest aid contributor to the Pacific, by a wide margin, Australia’s shrinking presence will have significant effects.

Q3: What challenges does Abbott face in the relationship with Indonesia?

A3: The Abbott government’s relationship with Indonesia has had a rocky start, with a diplomatic spat emerging just one week into its term. Jakarta has expressed alternating concern and outrage over the potential of Australian Navy vessels intruding into Indonesian waters to tow back asylum seekers. The disagreement led Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa to take the unprecedented step of leaking the transcript of a conversation with Bishop, in which she asked for Indonesian cooperation on the new policy.

While Prime Minister Abbott insisted in a radio interview that disagreement on asylum seekers was just a “passing irritant,” he was clearly worried enough to make Jakarta his first international destination as prime minister. Abbott traveled to Indonesia this week for talks with Indonesian counterparts, largely spent reassuring them that Canberra respects their sovereignty. He appeared to temper earlier comments insisting that Australia’s Navy will actually tow boats back to Indonesia if necessary. At best, Abbott’s trip to Jakarta seems to have met with limited success. The one bright spot, however, was what it proved about the new administration’s commitment to ensure good relations with Indonesia. It now falls to Foreign Minister Bishop to find the diplomatic compromises necessary to get past the asylum seeker issue. Failure to reconcile on this issue quickly could unnecessarily impede progress on more important facets of the relationship.

Q4: Will the new government face the same infighting as the old?

A4: Probably not. Abbott seems to have formed a loyal team around him and his coalition has learned the cost of disunity by watching Labor’s fall. Nonetheless, the Liberal Party has not always been one happy family. Malcolm Turnbull intended to lead the party into the 2010 election, only to be deposed after facing internal opposition over his support for the Labor government’s proposed Emissions Trading Scheme. Just a few months out from the election, it appeared that the Liberal Party was falling apart and Labor was going to cruise to an easy victory. In the end, the opposite nearly came true.

To keep Turnbull content, then-opposition leader Tony Abbott made him communications spokesperson, tasked with attacking Labor’s plan for a national broadband network. Turnbull is now minister for communications, but whether he has ambitions beyond that job is unknown. Now that the election is won, it remains to be seen whether the Liberal Party can remain as cohesive in government as it has been in opposition. If Turnbull or any other party member were to challenge Abbott, it would have to be due to apocalyptically low government popularity or a remarkable inability to learn the lessons of the recent past.

Ernest Z. Bower (@BowerCSIS) is codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative (@PacPartnersDC) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Christopher Doyle is a researcher with the CSIS Pacific Partners Initiative.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Courtesy: This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. cogitASIA blog

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