Will climate change unite or divide Australian PM, Obama?

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott meets with President Obama today. Differences on climate change is expected to dominate the agenda.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott tours the U.S. Capitol building during his visit to Washington June 11, 2014.

Since taking office last year, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has slashed foreign aid, cut domestic welfare spending, and retreated from joining global action on climate change. His stance on the latter issue – Australia is phasing out its carbon tax – puts him at odds with President Obama, whom he meets today in Washington, the first formal meeting between the two leaders.

Washington is the last stop in a round-the-world trip that has taken Mr. Abbott from a fence-mending bilateral mending in Indonesia to honoring Australia’s war dead in France. At home, he faces a bruising battle over an austerity budget, one of the factors that have forced his personal approval rating down to 18 percent, according to one poll.

Critics also charge Abbott with short-changing Australia’s international image. One of his first policies was to turn back asylum seekers coming by boat to Australia after a surge in arrivals. Then came last month’s budget that cut foreign aid by $8.1 billion over five years, bringing annual spending down to $4.7 billion. Australia spends around 0.35 per cent of Gross National Income on foreign aid – well short of the UN's Millennium Development Goal of 0.7 percent of GNI (the US spends less than 0.2 percent.)

Hardest hit will be aid projects in Africa that received a substantial boost under Australia’s previous government as it shopped for votes during its successful campaign in 2012 for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Abbott’s government has reversed earlier decisions to join the African Development Bank Group and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Greater emphasis will be given to aid that enhances economic growth and benefits countries in Asia, where Australia has a more direct stake.

“We can certainly say that this government has a more realist approach to the world rather than an idealist approach. It is taking a more bilateral path than a multilateral one,” says Michael Fullilove, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a Sydney-based think tank.

“But at the same time we haven’t seen that much of Abbott on the international stage. It will be very important to see how he conducts himself in the lead-up to the G20 meeting. That will be a huge marker,” he said, referring to a G20 gathering in Brisbane, Australia in November.

Less Geneva, more Jakarta

During last September’s election campaign, Abbott said Australia’s foreign policy should be “less about Geneva, more about Jakarta.” Subsequent revelations that Australia’s intelligence services were spying on Indonesia’s leaders and Abbott’s hard line on asylum seekers transiting Indonesia, cooled relations between the two neighbors.

At last week’s meeting between Abbott and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono, the two leaders said they were drawing up an intelligence-gathering code of conduct, but agreed to disagree on whether the boat people issue had been settled.

There was no such ambiguity when Abbott met his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper in Ottawa on Monday. The two leaders found common ground in ruling out any environmental policies that might impact growth in their resource-oriented economies.

Abbott said in Ottawa that climate change was "not the only or even the most important problem" the world faced. For his part, Mr. Harper told a press conference that “no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately harm jobs and growth in their country. We are just a bit more frank about that than other countries.”

Emissions target pledges

Climate change is certain to be on the agenda in Washington today after Obama last week announced a plan to cut emissions from US coal plants by 30 per cent by 2030, pushing the US closer to an emissions reduction target pledged at UN climate talks in 2010.

Abbott is due to replace Australia’s carbon tax with an opt-in scheme in which polluters would be paid from general revenue to reduce emissions. He’s separately resisted calls by the US and other major powers for climate change to be part of the G20 agenda, arguing that it would “clutter” a meeting that should concentrate on global economic growth.

According to the annual Lowy Institute Poll, 63 percent of Australians believe the Abbott government should be taking a leadership role on reducing carbon emissions. Only 28 percent think the government should wait for an international consensus.

Abbott’s stance is unlikely to go down well with Obama, says Robyn Eckersley, head of political science at the University of Melbourne. “Obama has waited for his second term to really lift his game on climate change and I think he wants to go down in history as the US president who has actually done something in this space, so he doesn’t want close allies like Australia engaging in initiatives that are going to make that harder.”

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