TONY Abbott may be facing problems on the home front. However, following a visit to Washington, DC, it is obvious that the Prime Minister and his senior ministers, including Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, are well regarded in the US.
This is the view of individuals close to the White House, the Democratic Party and the Republicans. The word is that President Barack Obama is very impressed by Abbott’s decisiveness.
This should come as no surprise. After all, the Coalition was quick to dispatch air and ground forces to assist the Iraqi government in its battle against the so-called Islamic State. Australia’s decision was made when the Obama administration was looking for allies.
Yet this reality would surprise anyone who has just read the very latest generalised history of contemporary Australia, namely The Rise and Fall of Australia: How a Great Nation Lost Its Way by the BBC’s former correspondent in Australia Nick Bryant. This is yet another alienated account by a journalist who believes that, given a chance, they could do a better job at running a democratic country.
There is an emerging club among this genre. Bryant’s book contains a front cover endorsement by George Megalogenis, a former journalist for this newspaper, declaring: “A terrific account of a great nation cursed by ordinary leaders.”
Bryant returns the compliment in his text, praising Megalogenis’s book The Australian Moment and stating that “its thesis was as stirring as it was sound”.
Megalogenis admired the political leadership provided by Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating but he does not have much time for their Coalition or Labor successors.
Bryant’s position is similar. Except that he does concede John Howard’s role as an economic reformer, even though he is a scathing critic of Howard’s social agenda. Bryant endorses the hyperbole of Robert Hughes, who described the former prime minister as a “visionary with eyes in the back of his head”. Funny, eh?
Bryant reserves his strongest criticism for Scott Morrison, whom, he declares, comes across “as a modern-day Captain Mainwaring, the blustering and blinkered comic figure of the Home Guard army”.
This is mere ridicule. The fictional Mainwaring did not stop the German army. However, like him or not, the very real Morrison appears to have stopped the arrival of unauthorised boats. For the moment, at least.
Bryant’s concluding chapter, titled Throwback Australia, is very much a rant against the Abbott government and all who support it.
Earlier in the book, the author presents himself as a modern kind of guy who is sensitive to feminism and all that. Yet, towards the end of his tome, Bryant refers to House of Representative Speaker Bronwyn Bishop as she of “the hurricane-proof hair”. Well now.
In his final chapter, Bryant goes bipartisan with respect to bagging Australia’s current and recent prime ministers. He mentions that “for Abbott, like Gillard, the international stage was outside his comfort zone”. This statement is inaccurate with respect to both Abbott and Julia Gillard.
Despite an interview on the ABC’s 7.30 early in her prime ministership when she indicated that she was more interested in education than foreign policy, the former prime minister put considerable importance on Australia’s role in the world. She enjoyed very good relations with the leadership of both the US and China and played a role in Australia’s election to a term on the UN Security Council.
It is possible that some of Abbott’s most significant foreign policy interventions occurred after Bryant’s book went to the printers. However, anyone who had read Abbott’s work or understands his personality would have known that Abbott would feel at home on the international stage. And so it turned out to be, following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, the emergence of Islamic State and at the G20 meeting in Brisbane. Certainly, the leadership in Washington, Tokyo, Beijing and Jakarta does not share Bryant’s interpretation of Abbott.
As Bryant acknowledges, his view of Australia is influenced by Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country. Horne was a well-read journalist and intellectual, possessed of lively prose and strong opinions. However, he disliked Robert Menzies, whose second term as prime minister lasted between December 1949 and January 1966.
Hence Horne’s critique of Australia as a lucky country led by second-rate politicians who shared its luck. This is hyperbole. Menzies was no second-rate politician. Nor were such leading figures in his government as Percy Spender, Richard Casey and Paul Hasluck. To declare Menzies second rate suggests that Horne had little time for the majority of electors who voted for the Coalition in 1949, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961 and 1963.
Reading Bryant recalls those so-called debates on the ABC where everyone agrees with everyone else. For the most part, his sources agree with him; namely, Robert Manne, Waleed Aly, David Marr, Hugh White, Phillip Adams, Tim Flannery and more besides. All present Australia from an alienated perspective — as racist or intolerant or backward.
Bryant specifically agrees with Aly’s assertion that Australia has “a fairly high level of low-level racism”. Really? And compared with what? Australia has a low level of ethnically motivated crime and a high level of inter-ethnic marriage. Which indicates that Australia has a high level of racial acceptance. But, alas, not to the alienated.
The Rise and Fall of Australia contains much valuable information and few errors. Yet even the author implicitly acknowledges the problem with his thesis when he writes: “If Australian politics is so bad, then why has the country done so well?”
Bryant, like Horne before him, is blind to the possibility that Australia has done well during the past seven decades because, overall, it has been well led across economic, social and foreign policy issues.
Sure, right now, Australian politics looks difficult. But the same can be said for the US, Britain, France, Italy, Belgium and many more.
International leaders understand this reality. Which is why the likes of Obama admire Abbott.