Australia's new prime minister, Tony Abbott, spoke with Lally Weymouth this week by phone—and did not mince words when it came to his opinion of the Labor government that preceded him. Excerpts:
Lally Weymouth: Do you plan to strengthen the U.S.-Australia relationship?
Tony Abbott: I will do everything I humanly can to work closely with the government and the people of the United States. Australia will be a good ally of the U.S. and a good friend and partner—strategic and economic—to the United States.
L.W.: Will you continue with the deployment of the U.S. Marines at Darwin?
T.A.: We very much supported the former government's agreement with the United States to have that Marine rotation through Darwin, and we will enthusiastically continue it.
L.W.: Do you plan to come to the U.S. to visit President Obama?
T.A.: He's a very busy man, and I don't want to make his life more complicated by demanding an early meeting. He was good enough to take a phone call from me after the election. I expect to visit the United States sometime next year.
L.W.: Do you feel it will be difficult to balance strong political and security ties with the U.S. against Australia's strong commercial relationship with China?
T.A.: No, I don't. I don't see any difficulties between maintaining the closest possible strategic partnership with the U.S. and developing an ever-closer economic relationship and broader friendship with China.
L.W.: Are you worried the U.S. "rebalancing" or pivot toward Asia has been forgotten? President Obama just canceled his trip to Asia, and he barely mentioned Asia in his U.N. speech.
T.A.: I fully understand why the president was unable to attend the [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting] and the Asia summit. He had very pressing domestic issues to deal with.
L.W.: Do you think the government shutdown affected U.S. credibility in the region?
T.A.: Plainly it would be better if these things didn't happen, but we all understand that if you've got a disagreement between parties, sometimes that can play itself out in the legislature in fairly dramatic ways.
L.W.: Your first trip as prime minister was to Indonesia. During your campaign you said that you would be more about Jakarta than Geneva. What did you mean?
T.A.: It was a figure of speech, which was supposed to characterize the fact that we would focus our attention on the areas which were most vital to our interests and where we could make the most difference. The closer to home, the more significant for us. It was my way of attempting a pithy encapsulation of a common-sense approach to Australian foreign policy.
L.W.: Will you pursue a very different foreign policy than your predecessors?
T.A.: I hope that I will be more consistent and predictable than my immediate predecessors. But in terms of the general aspirations—I don't think you will see much difference. Hopefully you will see the whole relationship conducted more steadily, more consistently.
L.W.: The whole relationship with the U.S.? With China?
T.A.: All of our relationships. The difficulty with the former government was that one day they were focused on this, the next day they were focused on that. They found it difficult to consistently follow through on anything. I hope the new government will have fewer initiatives but will calmly and steadily follow through on the things that really matter.
L.W.: You recently met with China's new president.
T.A.: Yes, I had a bilateral meeting with President Xi [Jinping] at APEC. I thought the meeting was warm and constructive, and we both agreed that we would try to re-energize the Australia-China free-trade negotiations, which have been languishing since 2005.
L.W.: Do you see Australia's relationship with China improving under your leadership?
T.A.: It's been a good relationship for many years, and, obviously, the commercial relationship has been getting stronger and stronger. China is now by a long way our biggest trading partner. ... I'd like to see the relationship deepen [and] the trade relationship continue to strengthen. I don't think it is in any way inconsistent to strengthen our relationship with China while at the same time strengthening our relationships with the United States, Japan, and others.
L.W.: Australia has been amazingly dependent on China as an export market. How will the slowdown of China's growth impact your economy?
T.A.: Growth in China has slowed down from 9 percent to 7 percent, but it is still very, very high, and Australia's iron ore exports are going up, not down. Our gas exports are going up, not down. Sure, the resources boom is changing, but it is not ending. The investment side of the resources boom is slowing down, but the production side is cranking up, not down. In the years ahead, we will be needing investment in areas other than resources. Over the next half-decade or decade, we are going to have to invest massively in roads and other infrastructure which have been neglected by Labor governments.
L.W.: During your campaign you called for a repeal of the carbon tax imposed by the Labor Party. Why are you against this tax?
T.A.: The carbon tax is bad for the economy and it doesn't do any good for the environment. Despite a carbon tax of $37 a ton by 2020, Australia's domestic emissions were going up, not down. The carbon tax was basically socialism masquerading as environmentalism, and that's why it's going to get abolished.
L.W.: It will be abolished this year?
T.A.: As soon as possible. If the Labor Party wants to give the people of Australia a Christmas present, they will vote to abolish the carbon tax. It was damaging the economy without helping the environment. It was a stupid tax. A misconceived tax.
L.W.: You said in your victory speech that Australia is once again open for business. Does that mean you believe that the previous government was unfriendly to businesses?
T.A.: I said Australia is under new management and is once again open for business. The previous government would often say the right thing, but it would invariably do the wrong thing when it came to business. ... There was an explosion in red tape and green tape. There was a whole thicket of new restrictions in the labor market. There were big new taxes. It was a government which thought that there was no problem that more public servants, higher taxes, and further regulation couldn't fix.
L.W.: So you're reversing that?
T.A.: We will do our damnedest to shrink the public service and have a bonfire of red tape and unnecessary taxes.
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