By Melissa Conley Tyler, national executive director at the Australian Institute of International Affairs and Genevieve Lai, an intern at the AIIA's national office.
Right now one of the country's favourite parlour games is to bemoan Malcolm Turnbull's freakish similarity to Tony Abbott. Given the stereotype of Abbott as a dinosaur reluctantly dragged into the modern world versus Mr Innovation and Opportunity, the public had expected change. Instead, it has been disappointed to see great continuity.
However, in at least one area — foreign policy — there are discernible differences between the two. Malcolm Turnbull has brought a number of changes in tone in dealing with the wider world. While these could be dismissed as differences in style more than substance, in international relations such changes matter: they signal intentions and can significantly alter relationships.
An examination of Turnbull's 32 speeches during his first six months in the top job to 15 March shows that he differs from Abbott in at least four areas.
The first is on national security and terrorism. Prime Minister Abbott used strong rhetoric, referring to ISIS as a 'death cult' that is 'coming after us' and urging Muslim leaders to 'get with the program'. Unfairly or not, by the end of his term this led to some derision, such as a satirical segment by John Oliver and the flag count at Abbott national security press conferences (for your interest, peak flag was 10).
By contrast, Prime Minister Turnbull has been self-consciously measured on national security threats. After the Paris terror attacks his response was: 'This is not a time for gestures or machismo. Calm, clinical, professional, effective. That's how we defeat this menace'. He made the decision to calm rather than stoke anxiety, noting that 'ISIL's momentum has been halted. Its capabilities degraded'. Crucially, for efforts to counter radicalisation, he stressed the role of the Muslim community as 'our absolute necessary partner in the battle against extremism'. After an attack in Parramatta his response was that 'we must not vilify or blame the entire Muslim community with the actions of what is, in truth, a very, very small percentage of violent extremist individuals'.
Second, there has been a shift in tone in the relationship with Indonesia.
The Abbott era marked a low ebb in the alliance: both ambassadors were recalled (in response to spying and executions respectively) and there were significant tensions around boat turn-backs and encroachment into Indonesian waters. Tony Abbott was vilified in Indonesia for failing to apologise for the spying ('Australia should not be expected to apologise for the steps we take to protect our country') and for linking pleas for clemency to Australia's tsunami aid. Despite his aim to be 'more Jakarta, less Geneva', the relationship was not a strong one.
Malcolm Turnbull, on the other hand, has brought a change of mood: his first international visit was to Indonesia and he seemed to build an immediate rapport with President Jokowi: just look at photos of their walk through a textile market. Discussions focused on 'common interests and common objectives': growth, jobs, trade, infrastructure and investment. Turnbull returned reporting that 'we now have real impetus in the relationship and we will build on that momentum for a stronger and stronger Indonesia-Australia friendship.' While not much of substance has changed yet, reports suggest many in Indonesia are hopeful the new leadership is bringing better relations.
Third, the approach to China has also reflected a change in temperament. Abbott's attitude was reportedly summed up in his comments to Angela Merkel that Australia's relationship with China was driven by 'fear and greed', neither a very positive emotion. His enthusiasm was for building ties with China's regional rival, Japan, describing Japan as Australia's 'best friend in Asia' and as 'a strong ally'.
By contrast, Turnbull's primary orientation is that of a businessman. He sees the last 40 years in China as 'the single greatest and most exciting economic transformation of modern times'. He welcomes the growth of the Chinese economy and the opportunities it presents for Australia: 'there has never been a more exciting time to be pursuing business opportunities with China'. That doesn't mean Turnbull won't criticise China. For example, he characterises China's actions in the South China Sea as counterproductive and encourages China's leaders to 'take steps to lower tensions there.' His stated aim is to avoid tension to enable joint prosperity, believing that both Australia and China benefit economically from avoiding the 'Thucydides trap' of a rising power: 'we will all grow together, we will all prosper together, as long as we maintain that harmony.'
On the relationship with the US, it looks like there has been more change than has in fact occurred. While Malcolm Turnbull did refuse to provide an increased Australian military presence in Iraq and Syria ('the right boots on the right ground'), it seems that this was a simple case of alliance mismanagement by the US. The tenor of Turnbull's speech in Washington on the 'enduring partnership' was similar to Abbott's assurance that 'America will never have a more dependable friend than Australia'.
Fourth, there is a definite difference in approach to India. Abbott was a staunch advocate for closer ties, given the bonds of democracy, rule of law and the English language. He saw this as creating a civilisational bond between two Anglosphere nations. By contrast, India is almost absent from Turnbull's speeches, with only three passing references: to an Indian bank, to India's growth rate and regional role, and at the launch of the Defence White Paper. Given his focus on technology and innovation, the absence of India is striking. Certainly Turnbull is more likely to engage with India due to economic opportunities than intangible bonds.
There are other areas of change: for example it's unlikely that a Prime Minister Abbott would have attended the Paris Climate Summit and said 'We do not doubt the implications of the science, or the scale of the challenge.' Abbott would also likely not have spoken so warmly at the 70th Anniversary of the UN.
In foreign policy, continuity rather than change is the rule. Broad national interests remain relatively stable; politicians of all varieties commit themselves to promote Australia's security and prosperity. Most differences are ones of nuance. Given this, the difference in approach and tone between Prime Ministers Abbott and Turnbull is noteworthy. If nothing else, Australia is a different country in world affairs under a leader who believes we're living in 'the most exciting times in human history...in the most exciting part of the world'.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Australian Embassy Jakarta