In the space of week Australia has lost two great friends on the international stage. Within days of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing that he will step down when his successor is named, former Japanese prime minster Shinzo Abe was assassinated as he campaigned for the Liberal Democratic party.
Mr Johnson was forced to leave because he had succeeded in galvanising the broadest coalition seen in Britain for quite some time, united only in the conviction that the prime minister must go. Miserable ‘Rejoiners’ rejoiced and immediately began plotting a return to the corridors of Brussels. Conviction conservatives, many the readers and writers of the Speccie were bitterly disillusioned by Johnson, summed up by Toby Young who damned the PM for governing like ‘Tony Blair in a blond wig’.
Yet in less than three years, Johnson, with former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, and US President Joe Biden, came up with Aukus, an agreement that locks Australia into a security pact with the undisputed leaders of the free world, and which comes with a commitment to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, which it urgently needs to secure the sea lanes vital to our trade.
In his defence of Ukraine, Johnson demonstrated that the UK is a far more reliable security partner than too many fickle European leaders.
While the EU continues to snub Australia, Johnson’s delivery of Brexit opened the way for a British Australian free trade agreement making it easier for people in both countries to trade and invest. And despite his commitment to economy-killing climate change pieties, when Russia turned off the gas spigots this year, Johnson adeptly reopened coal-fired power plants to keep the lights on.
Johnson’s hero, Sir Winston Churchill famously said, ‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write.’ The same will be true of Johnson. Indeed, many of his critics, who gloat at his downfall, will likely be remembered only in the footnotes of his bon mots. In one hundred years, even if they have no idea who he is talking about, people will still chuckle at Johnson saying, ‘My speaking style was criticised by no less an authority than Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a low moment my friends, to have my rhetorical skills denounced by a monosyllabic, Austrian cyborg.’
To the horror of his detractors and the delight of his fans, Johnson may yet return to politics, as did Churchill. It happened to Abe, who rose to be prime minister of Japan twice. In his excellent article this week, Rowan Callick quotes Australian intelligence chief Andrew Shearer, who observed that although he had only a year as PM in 2006-2007, Abe returned from the political wilderness ‘a leader transformed – tougher, wiser, and a formidable political operator’.Yet already, in his first term, Abe could see more clearly than many Australians, the threat the Chinese Communist party posed to the Asia-Pacific and the West and he was determined to counter it by building alliances with other democracies and taking Japan beyond the pacificism that it had adopted at the end of the second world war so that it could share fully in the burden of defending the freedom and prosperity of the region.
In his first term as prime minister, Abe, like Johnson, strengthened ties with Australia, signing a joint declaration on security cooperation with prime minister John Howard, and initiating the Quadrialateral Security Dialogue, supported by Australia, India and the United States. Unfortunately, Howard and Abe both lost office soon after, and Howard’s successor, Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, walked away from the diaologue, preferring to cosy up to China. When Tony Abbott was elected prime minister, Abe was again in office and the two sought to strengthen ties with a free trade agreement and a deal to buy conventional submarines from Japan. Even though the submarine deal was eventually struck with France — then abandoned in favour of a deal through Aukus, Abe remained steadfast in his friendship with Australia.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine drives the world towards an economic abyss, China’s pursuit of zero Covid strangles global supply chains, and climate zealots sabotage energy supplies, Australia will greatly miss two true friends.
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