Australians worry too much. You don’t dress warmly enough, especially on chilly airplanes. Your coffee isn’t as great as you think. The food at roadside restaurants — called truck stops in America — is quite good. Sydney is nice, particularly the ferries, but I liked Melbourne a bit more, and Wellington more than either of them. Winter in Australia is wonderful. I could go on with more off-hand impressions by an American on his first trip here. But I’m supposed to be offering my take on your politics and election campaign. I’ll end the suspense. My take was favourable. For one thing, I didn’t expect the daily newspaper coverage of the campaign to be as extensive and fun to read as it is. For another, I loved the second televised debate with questions from folks in Brisbane that Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott couldn’t have anticipated. Why are candidates so poor these days? Good question, followed by two poor answers.
This year’s Australian election had a special appeal for me. I write about politics and policy for the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine founded by three of us in 1995 with Rupert Murdoch’s money and now owned by Denver entrepreneur Phil Anschutz. If the election were in Europe or Latin America, I’d have stayed home. But it’s in Australia, a place I’ve always wanted to visit but never figured I would. And the conservative party has a good shot at winning. Fly 9,761 miles to chronicle a triumph by a left-wing party — no way. I’d heard positive things about Abbott from Americans who know him. Also, Australia is an English-speaking country. I once covered an election in the Philippines and had to listen to speeches in Tagalog. Never again.
It’s not only shorter campaigns, mandatory voting, and fewer restrictions on fundraising that make your elections different. I learned first-hand that parties can change candidates willy-nilly and I’m not just referring to Rudd’s ousting of Julia Gillard as prime minister. My wife Barbara and I met Peter Beattie at Ambassador Kim Beazley’s home in Washington. He had moved to New York and was looking to buy a home. He and my wife, whose maiden name is Beatty, discussed the spelling of their last names. Beattie talked up Queensland, where he’d been premier, but there was no indication he’d be returning. A week later, he showed up at Rudd’s side to announce he’s running for parliament from Queensland. A perfectly good Labor candidate was kicked out to accommodate him. Stunts like that rarely work. They are acts of desperation. Beattie had been a fierce critic of Rudd. Now they are buddies. In my view, Rudd’s entire campaign is a stunt. His lurch to the right seemed fake. A comparable stunt in America would have seen Hillary Clinton replace President Obama a couple months before last year’s election and run to Mitt Romney’s right.
My favourite Rudd-Abbott moment came in the second debate when Abbott blurted: ‘Does this guy ever shut up?’ The press completely missed the beauty of this. Commentators flirted with calling it a gaffe. But Abbott had struck at Rudd’s weakest point. He’s a motor mouth. And nobody likes a motor mouth. The remark reminded me of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in their debate in 1980. What worked brilliantly for Reagan was his reply to Carter’s stream of charges: ‘There you go again.’ The effect was to blow away Carter’s blabbering as a scare campaign. To me, Abbott’s zinger had a similar effect.
I was sorry to see the Australian media get as carried away with gaffes as the American press. What the press labels a gaffe is usually something else. Abbott’s use of ‘suppository’ when he meant ‘repository’ was merely a slip of the tongue. His mention of a female candidate’s ‘sex appeal’ was entirely innocent. His dismissal of gay marriage as a fad simply reflected his opposition. By the way, Abbott knows how to handle social issues. He doesn’t focus on them, but neither does he fudge his position when asked. Abbott’s problem isn’t gaffes; it’s his spending plans. Every day he unveils a government solution that involves big spending. His paid parental leave scheme would pay women as much as $75,000 a year. He’d build more highways, increase defence spending, adopt a new disability payment plan. This is the conservative in the race? He’s the hope for smaller government and a budget that shrinks as a share of GDP every year? As for Gillard, I’ve never laid eyes on her. I’m sure we agree on very little. She’s been described as ‘atheist, single and childless’. I’m the opposite on all three. But she vowed to retire and be quiet if Rudd displaced her. She’s kept her promise. I don’t think there’s an American politician with the self-control to manage this.
As Obama says, let me be clear. My wife and I loved Australia. We were active tourists, climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge, snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef, visiting Toranga Zoo, driving the Great Ocean Road, and taking in an awful adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in Melbourne. We zipped over to New Zealand for a few days. Wellington struck me as a vintage American city of the Reagan era. I had lunch at the stately Wellington Club. In Sydney, I attended the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, a gathering of elites from both countries dedicated to strengthening the Aussie-Yank relationship. The meeting was off the record, but I feel free to say I heard worries about Australia’s future. But Australia hasn’t had a recession since 1991. Its immigrants are skilled and educated folks from China and India. Australia is creative and resilient. It has a protector in the US. It’s a beautiful country. Lighten up!
Fred Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard and a regular contributor to the Fox News Channel.