Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 17:08 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 17:08 | SYDNEY

Tony Abbott Heritage speech


Sam Roggeveen


19 July 2012 11:07

To round off Graeme Dobell's piece about Tony Abbott's foreign and aid policies as described in the leaked Coalition speaker notes, let's take a look at the speech Abbott gave at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC on Tuesday.  

First, it's important to say that a speech should be judged mainly in the delivery, and I have not seen or heard this speech delivered. But in the reading, at least, it comes across as strangely staccato, a series of dot points cobbled together rather than a story or an argument through which one can find a thread. Why is it necessary to touch on every hot-button foreign policy issue in one speech, particularly if what you say about some of them is so brief and banal?

I was taken aback by the claim that 'few Australians would regard America as a foreign country.' Number me among the few. Julia Gillard set the bar high in expressing fidelity to the US in her March 2011 address to Congress, but Abbott's claim raises the stakes again. Have our leaders now reached a rhetorical ceiling when it comes to expressions of affection for America, or can they go higher?

Another thing the two speeches have in common is their pep-talk quality. Gillard told the US Congress that America 'can do anything still'. Abbott's version: 'America needs to believe in itself the way others still believe in it.'

Abbott didn't refer to the 'Anglosphere' in this speech, but his remarks at the beginning about the roots of Liberal Party philosophy suggest his continued fidelity to this nowadays unfashionable concept. Maybe he should stick with it; he clearly feels it deeply and it's not as prejudicial as some would argue.

It's tempting to read Abbott's Anglophilia as an assertion of cultural prejudice, and in that guise one could take offence at it and claim it plays badly in the 'Asian century'. There's certainly an element of Menzian nostalgia, but it's clear from this speech that Abbott's abiding concern is for the liberal traditions that the English-speaking world has often championed. For Abbott, the 'Anglosphere' is not an exclusionary cultural or nationalist concept but an idea open to all who value human freedom and dignity.

Still, his boasting on behalf of the English-speaking world reveals an uncertain grasp of history. And if you're Russian, a rather offensive one too. For according to Abbott, Britain and her colonies 'stood alone' against Nazi Germany.

The treatment of China's rise and America's relative decline is confused. Consistent with the 'buck up, America!' tone, Abbott points out that the US is not declining and that 'America remains by far the world’s largest economy'. And yet, says Abbott, 'Over time, America's economic preponderance is likely to diminish.' True, though he didn't need to use the future tense. In fact, the passage would have had much more force in the present tense, alerting his audience to the fact that the future is happening now.

But then again, Abbott seems to believe that 'America does not need to be told where it is going wrong but where it is going right.' That's a strangely one-dimensional view of what constitutes a 'family' relationship. Pep talks have their place, but the danger arises when they degenerate into head-in-the-sand positive reinforcement.