Speaking out ... Tony Abbott.

Speaking out ... Tony Abbott.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has hit out at Australia's defence cuts before the US's most prominent conservative think tank on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Addressing the Heritage Foundation, Mr Abbott lent support to criticism of Australia's defence budget by former US secretary of state, Richard Armitage, who has suggested Australia is taking a free ride on the US and risking its credibility as an ally.

Asked if he was worried about Australia's cuts to its Defence budget, Mr Abbott said he believed savings were possible in defence, but that "it was irresponsible to save money in defence in a way that compromises your military capability, given that Australia's military capabilities are not vast''.

"Certainly the last thing we want to do is disappoint our friends and allies at what is for everyone a difficult time," he said.

In the May budget, the government made substantial cuts to defence spending, totalling $5.45 billion over the next four years, in order to restore the budget to surplus.

The opposition was highly critical, accusing the government of reducing defence spending to 1.6 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), a level not seen since 1938.

Both members of the Democrat administration and the senior Republicans have voiced concern at Australia's Defence budget, as well as at cuts to defence budgets of the member nations of NATO.

Cabinet minister Brendan O’Connor has accused Mr Abbott of ignoring convention by choosing to question Australian defence capabilities while overseas.

‘‘Now that is not the behaviour of a future prime minister,’’ Mr O'Connor told Sky News.

Evoking in turn John Howard, Lord Tennyson, Ben Chifley, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Graham Greene, Winston Churchill, Alexis de Tocqueville, Mitt Romney, Robert Menzies and finally Franklin Roosevelt, Mr Abbott argued in his address that the rise of Asian powers did not mean America's power must decline, and that the world would be safer for America's continued strength.

He said America continued to have the world's largest economy and remained the nation the world turned to in times of trouble or disaster.

"What's remarkable is that, right now, perhaps for the first time, the world appears to have more confidence in America than America has in itself," he said.

He conceded that America's high debt was a concern, but boasted that the Howard government had managed successfully to cut debt and that the Key government of New Zealand had cut spending and government programs with little fuss.

Mr Abbott said Australia and America were so close that, "few Australians would regard America as a foreign country", and compared Chifley's notion of the "light on the hill" to Reagan's "shining city on the hill".

"We are more than allies, we're family. Around the world we seek no privileges, ask no favours, crave no territory," he said.

But he said the relationship was not cause for Australia not to pursue regional ties.

"Australia doesn't have to choose between our neighbours and our friends because our neighbours are also our friends and because our best friends are increasingly at home in our neighbourhood."

And he said America should not take Australian support for granted.

"Australia's national interest might not always be identical with America's," he said.

"Our values, though, invariably coincide and Australia's foreign policy should be driven as much by our values as by our interests."

But he reaffirmed his support for the recent wars Australia has followed the US into.

"Over the past decade, there's been much 'expert' advice that Australia would be a better ally by ostentatiously refusing to participate in America's so-called follies, such as Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

"Narrow self-interest would have kept America out of Iraq, as it did the French and German governments of the time."

Asked by Sky News if a coalition government would restore defence funding to two per cent of GDP, Mr Abbott said the important thing was not to compromise Australian defence capability.

‘‘I don’t want to put figures on it,’’ he said. ‘‘I would want to get the advice of the defence chiefs as to what the impact of this will be on our military capability.’’

Mr Abbott said Labor had put forward a very ambitious list of worthy defence acquisitions, including 12 submarines and Joint Strike Fighters.

The opposition leader also praised Kevin Rudd for his work in the United States, amid fresh Labor leadership speculation back home.

Both Mr Abbott and Mr Rudd are in the US to attend several sessions of the American-Australian Leadership Dialogue.

Back in Australia, Labor MPs have denied reports Julia Gillard’s leadership is under threat following comments by chief government whip Joel Fitzgibbon that populism mattered in politics.

Asked whether he saw Mr Rudd’s hand in renewed leadership speculation, Mr Abbott instead was full of praise for the former Labor leader.


‘‘Kevin Rudd has been doing what you’d think a former prime minister and a former foreign minister ought to do at a conference like this,’’ he told Sky News.

‘‘I have to say the contributions that I’ve heard from Kevin Rudd have been highly sophisticated and very much to the point.’’

With AAP