The Anglosphere and Tony Abbott
17 Jul 2013|

Queen's College, Oxford, where Tony Abbott studied as a Rhodes ScholarTony Abbott has sworn off talking about the Anglosphere because the responses are too Pavlovian. Too late.

The Liberal Leader is destined to wear the Anglosphere label with the same mixed results that John Howard had with that Deputy Sheriff badge. But Abbott will lose little sleep over the dogs barking and biting: standing with Howard, the US alliance and the military and economic traditions of Anglo-American history will suit him admirably.

We venture into Anglosphere territory because of the fine work of Hugh White and Peter Jennings; it’s always stimulating to see two top players at the top of their game, going for it at top speed. See their Strategist exchanges (here, here, and here).

Rather than getting too close to the cut and thrust of these two superb semantic swordsmen, I’ll approach the Anglosphere through three columns: Abbot, Oz voters and what the Anglosphere offers in thinking about the Asia Century or the Indo Pacific Age. This first effort is about Tony because he, single-handedly, has injected the term into Oz politics.

Tony Abbott believes in the Anglosphere, as he made clear in his book Battlelines. For a witty version of why the Anglosphere works for Abbott, read his Oxford speech on how he was formed by studying there as a Rhodes Scholar.

The strongest foreign policy element in the address is his aside giving the Anglosphere an Asian tinge:

As with all the countries that think and argue among themselves in English (that these days include Singapore and Hong Kong, Malaysia and even India), what we have in common is usually more important than anything that divides us.

The jests are elegant, in an Anglo sort of way, especially his musing that one reason Bill Clinton (another Rhodes scholar) experimented with the smoking of exotic weed during his studies was ‘because the Rhodes House no smoking signs were in Latin!’

See also the wonderful line from the historian of the Conservative Party, Lord Blake, passing judgement on Tony’s student performance: ‘Mr Abbott needs to temper his robust common sense with a certain philosophic doubt’. Oz voters will get their Lord Blake moment later this year.

Shortly after that Oxford speech, Tony Walker asked Abbott whether he would exclude the word ‘Anglosphere’ from his political vocabulary, irrespective of his attachment to that world view. This was the laughing Abbott reply: ‘Whenever that term is used it tends to prompt a Pavlovian reaction and it’s best not to prompt Pavlovian reactions if you can avoid it’.

Abbott has been able to watch the Pavlovian responses from Kevin Rudd, Paul Keating and, notably, Bob Carr, who made the Anglosphere the closing stanza of his recent foreign policy roundup to the Press Club:

Tony Abbott has spoken many times about the Anglosphere, the importance of the Anglosphere to him. He did it in his book, where he is not constrained by the obligation to prove he’s not a fire-breathing right-winger. He spoke about the Anglosphere more frequently and forcefully. I value very highly the comfort in our relations with other English-speaking democracies and it means a great deal to Australia, those relationships… For a conservative minister of Australia who had once been in tutelage of John Howard, talk of Anglosphere is very dangerous. It sends a very wrong message about where Australia is, the character of our country, the content of our foreign policy. And I would enter a very strong warning about that. A lot of it, a lot of the interpretation placed on that, were it to happen, might be wrong or unfair, but source considered, comments about an Anglosphere could be widely, wildly misinterpreted and do Australia great harm.

It may be ‘wrong and unfair’, to use the Carr phrase, but expect the Foreign Minister to keep probing right there with a sharp knife. Abbott needs to look no further than his hero and mentor John Howard to see that even labels you embrace can be twisted into badges of shame by critics.

The Howard ‘deputy sheriff’ meme is a great example. The fine journalist and fine man Fred Brenchley pinned the badge on Howard in an interview for The Bulletin in September, 1999, as Australia led the intervention in East Timor. Fred put the descriptor to Howard and the Prime Minister—to his lasting regret—accepted it.

What’s lost to memory and subsequent redefinition is that Howard, at that momentous moment, was embracing the image of sheriff rather than deputy. The PM had been deeply disappointed by the tardy response of the Clinton administration to the gathering storm in East Timor. For Howard, this was the most difficult period in relations with the US during the dozen years of his government. What he was embracing in his interview with Brenchley was the idea that Australia could take the lead in confronting security challenges in its own region—in other words, an image of Australian leadership not deputyship. That’s why the headline on the Brenchley piece was ‘The Howard Defence Doctrine’. Imagine Howard’s lasting chagrin, then, that the ‘deputy sheriff’ designation has become derisive shorthand for the depiction of Australia as a US lackey; granted Iraq added a lot of substance to the perspective.

The number of times I’ve heard ‘deputy sheriff’ thrown up in argument in all sorts of forums across Asia leads me to conclude that for many in the region it’s the defining two word description of Howard foreign policy—and, often, for Australian strategic policy. The new version would have us acting as ‘deputy marines’.

The deputy sheriff label held an element of truth for a loyal ally, but it could also be loaded with toxin. Whether for purposes of love or loathing, the Anglosphere is now a medal permanently pinned to Tony Abbott. The next column will consider what that means for the voters of Oz.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Bez_UK.