When Stephen Harper languished in opposition, he looked for political inspiration Down Under.
Liberal prime minister John Howard was in power in Australia in those days. (“Liberal” meaning “conservative” in Aussie political parlance.) He offered Mr. Harper political advice. More important, Mr. Harper’s team studied carefully the strategy and tactics of Mr. Howard’s party.
The team brought many of these approaches back with them to Canada, including identifying small chunks of the electorate and directing tax breaks to them, engaging in the “permanent election campaign,” even while in office, and relentlessly focusing on suburban voters, whom Mr. Howard called “battlers” and whom Canadian Conservatives might call “Tim Hortons” voters.
The ties have endured. Australian Liberal Party representatives attend Canadian Conservative conventions and observe election campaigns; Conservatives stay well briefed on what the Australian Liberals are thinking and strategizing.
Today, however, the roles are reversed. Australia has a a new Liberal Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Mr. Harper is now the conservative elder statesman, dispensing advice by telephone and when they meet in person, including urging that Australia adopt Canada’s Israel-focused Middle East policy. As Mr. Abbott said in a speech this week, referring to Mr. Harper’s Conservatives: “We recognize how much we have learned from you.”
Mr. Harper has truly found an ideological soulmate in Mr. Abbott, who came to the head of his party in one of those leadership challenges that involve only caucus members. (Caucus coups are part and parcel of Australian politics.) He won a challenge against predecessor Malcolm Turnbull by a single vote.
The two men are different in some respects – Mr. Abbott is a fitness fanatic, a practising Roman Catholic (educated by Jesuits), a Rhodes Scholar and the author of four books. But on domestic policy and international affairs, it’s hard to think of another government more aligned with Mr. Harper’s views.
As Mr. Abbott understands the Canadian experience, the Harper government has cut taxes, sliced the size of government, eliminated the deficit and “brought a robust common sense to world affairs” – music, no doubt, to Mr. Harper’s ears. Canada under Mr. Harper is held aloft by Mr. Abbott’s government, elected last September, as a model for Australia.
Australia has a deficit of about 2 per cent of GDP. Eliminating it is the Abbott government’s overriding preoccupation. It intends to do this by raising contribution rates for health care, getting rid of civil servants, cutting unspecified programs, reducing foreign aid and selling government assets. Large chunks of major Australian infrastructure is already owned by foreigners or has been built under public-private partnerships. Many more assets are on the block.
The Abbott government’s rhetoric surrounding these policies is straight from the Harper liturgy: “Australia is open for business … Lower taxes create more jobs … Australia will say what it means, and mean what it says.”
It quickly scrapped a carbon tax, implemented by the previous Labor government, that was to have morphed over time into a cap-and-trade system. Like Canada, Australia is a big fossil-fuel producer and has a poor record in combatting climate change. And like the Harper government, the Abbott government doesn’t take climate change very seriously. After it eliminated the tax, it received public congratulations from the Harper government, which, we might remember, had campaigned against a carbon tax.
In foreign policy, listening to Mr. Abbott is a bit like listening to Mr. Harper. The Abbottites decry what they consider to have been muddled multilateralism, in which they argue that Australia went along to get along – just as Harper Conservatives have scorned Canada’s traditional “honest broker” approach to foreign affairs. Instead, Mr. Abbott promises an “Australia First” foreign policy.
Like all Australians, Mr. Abbott understands that his country is now inextricably an Asian country. So in that sense, he represents continuity rather than change. Asia is to Australian trade what the United States is to Canadian trade – and no Australian prime minister can forget it.
By contrast, Canada is episodically interested in Asia, but also in la Francophonie, parts of Latin America, Europe, and countries such as Ukraine and Israel, where there are important local constituencies – in addition to the United States.
Mr. Abbott plans to visit Canada in June. He’ll get the warmest possible reception from Mr. Harper.