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Australia now a rogue middle-power under Abbott

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Since the Abbott government came to power in 2013, it has fundamentally altered Australia's international reputation by reforming policy on climate change and Australia's approach to asylum seekers. It is now a rogue middle power, writes Clancy Wright.

ABBOTT'S REFORMS have pushed Australia away from emerging international trends, and are increasingly isolating Australia as a rogue middle power — uninterested in human rights, sustainability or co-operation and undeterred by international criticism. The two key policy reforms – climate change and approach to asylum seekers – are at odds with efforts from middle and dominant powers to instigate constructive change. 

At a time when the international community must cooperate to overcome transnational problems, Australia stands alone, and there are no signs that the Government cares.

Under the Rudd/Gillard Governments, Australia implemented the Carbon Tax, a market-based mechanism designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by fixing a price to the production of such gases. This type of mechanism is strongly supported as one of the most, if not the most, effective method in limiting the production of greenhouse gases.

Supporters of the mechanism include world leaders such as Barack Obama, Xi Jinping and David Cameron and international institutions such as the World Bank, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. 

Abbott, a self-declared climate sceptic, claims the repeal of the mechanism as his biggest achievement”, but in repealing it, he ignited a cacophony of international criticism. 

Former U.S Vice President, Al Gore, labelled it disappointing, and both the European Union’s Climate Commissioner (at the time) Connie Hedegaard, and the chairman of the independent UK Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben, despaired that Australia had taken an independent decision, against unprecedented international momentum, to unwind effective climate change policy. Australia, as critics now note, is the only country to have ever passed, and then repealed, a market based mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2014, Tony Abbott took his carbon tax repeal one step further and publically declared that he and Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, were building a coalition with fellow conservative leaders in New Zealand and the United Kingdom to oppose and obstruct global carbon pricing. The proposal, which occurred roughly one week after President Obama and UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, called on all leaders to recognise climate change as the number one issue facing the world and to do more to reduce its impact, was firmly rejected by both potential partners.

The episode left Abbott exposed on the international stage, and slightly humiliated by a spokesperson for the New Zealand government who declared New Zealand would not support the proposal because this government takes climate change seriously''

Harper would himself later leave Abbott isolated on the international stage by contributing to the international Green Climate Fund, a fund that he and Abbott had publically sworn not to support. 

The Abbott Government's posturing and policy has led to a sharp fall in the perception that Australia is a country eager to contribute to climate change reform. A remark within a recent report headed by former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, which states 'With one of the world's highest levels of per capita emissions, Australia has gone from leadership to free-rider' is representative of the worlds’ perception of Australian climate change policy.

The other, dominant act of recalcitrance is the Abbott Government’s policy on the treatment of asylum seekers. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), at the end of 2014, there were 19.5 million refugees worldwide. A further 866,000 people submitted applications for asylum in industrialised countries, a 45 per cent increase. 

Germany received the most claims with 173,100, the USA 121,000, Turkey 87,720, Sweden 75,090, and a list of 14 other countries before Australia, who received 8, 960. Such numbers are important because the international community views the penalties and restrictions placed on those seeking asylum in Australia, in relation to the actual numbers, as largely disproportionate. 

Australian policies designed to deter and restrict asylum seekers are now some of the world’s most extreme. 

Even Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK anti-immigration and far-right party UKIP, recently denounced Australia’s policies as

“... tougher than we in Britain can perhaps stomach."

The recent, but unconfirmed, reports that Australian Navy officers paid people smugglers tens of thousands of U.S. dollars to return asylum seekers to Indonesia, as well as the suppression of the rights of medical staff working with off-shore detainees to talk about the health of those detained, represents a new low for the country and the Abbott Government. 

Both of these incidents have led to a surge in international examination and criticism of Australia’s asylum seeker policies. However, to his credit or his detriment, Abbott has remained steadfast in the face on international criticism.

In response to a 2014 UN finding that Australia’s offshore detention program was in violation of the Convention Against Torture, Tony Abbott stated that Australians are "sick of being lectured to by the United Nations".

Regardless of the accuracy of this claim by Abbott, it reminds us that Australia’s policies, which include the indefinite detention of children, are, at times, in breach of international law.  Australia has been warned, challenged and criticised by numerous international groups, institutions and heads of state for our asylum seeker policies. The Abbott Government’s commitment to these policies, despite fairly loud and serious criticism, suggests that the Government is not concerned by the world’s perception of Australia — and that’s a little concerning.

Policy reform under the Abbott Government and a distinctively brash and confrontational brand of diplomacy have shifted the perception of Australia from an international contributor to a “free-rider”. We have become a state that demonstrates scant regard for our rapidly worsening reputation and a belligerent attitude towards international institutions. Australia has become something it has not been before in its history: a rogue middle power — and we’re leading a very, very lonely movement of one.

You can follow Clancy on Twitter @ClancyWright.

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