In my opinion, Tony Abbott delivered a most imprudent speech to the Yushan Regional Security Forum in the Taiwanese capital Taipei last Friday.
Our former prime minister referred to Xi Jinping as "the new red emperor", accused him of bullying and belligerence, and listed all of China's "sins" - from Hong Kong and the Uighurs to trade sanctions against Australia - as reasons to support Taiwan politically and militarily. He also advocated Australia's phantom submarines patrol the "Taiwan Strait", while exhorting Canberra to deepen its ties with Taiwan.
Abbott was welcomed by none less than the Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen, and Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu. He spoke at the forum immediately after the President.
It is fair to say that Abbott is not known for his balance, and his performance in Taipei does nothing to alter that judgment. The question arises, though: who put Abbott up to it?
Prior to his Yushan speech, Abbott had not expressed himself in such rabid terms about China - and nor in such fulsome terms about Taiwan. We saw from his torrid time as prime minister that he is no great shakes as a thinker - in fact, like Morrison, he was able to advocate for and believe in two completely contradictory propositions at the same time, such as promoting the welfare of Indigenous Australians whilst cutting funding, and arguing for jobs while axing the domestic car industry.
Abbott's allegiances are easily swayed - whether by Murdoch or Pell - so who swayed him this time? Before Abbott gave his address, Morrison said his visit to Taiwan was a private one. Why did he feel the need to say that, unless he had been forewarned on what Abbott might say? And if so, by whom? Morrison is not known for his truth-telling, so his denial of the nature of the visit means little. On his past form, it probably means the opposite.
The Abbott speech was also in advance of anything he has said so far on tensions between China and Taiwan. It contained a strong message and tone, intended or not, that reflected the language that is usually pushed by groups like ASPI.
The senior Australian representative in Taiwan, Jenny Bloomfield, also accompanied Abbott. As a former prime minister he is entitled to official assistance by an Australian embassy or post - however, accompanying a former prime minister on his private visits and to official functions is not part of the duty statement.
In matters such as this, one of two things is likely to have occurred. One is an official instruction sent from Canberra directing the head of mission, Bloomfield, to accompany Abbott and give him the required assistance for him to successfully fulfil his undertakings to the forum - on this occasion, a speech of some significance. The other thing that might occur is that Abbott or the Taiwanese would have gotten in touch with Bloomfield to advise of the visit. She would then have sought instructions.
In that case, the government might say "provide only minimum assistance in accord with his former office", or say "do everything you can to assist". If the latter, Canberra becomes attached to the visit and a party to whatever occurs and is said. The visit then becomes, for all intents and purposes, an official visit. By her presence, Bloomfield may as well have accorded that status to Abbott's ill-advised jaunt. Additionally, the tone and nature of the message, taken together with Bloomfield's apparent support, provides the hallmark of official approval.
This intervention by Abbott has about it a sense of the inept diplomacy which has seen relations with China, France and the EU collapse. Ham-fisted, poorly timed and not co-ordinated with other countries in the region, or other players like the US, Japan and France.
The US must be aghast at the Abbott foray at a time when it is trying to develop a dialogue with China. But then, maybe not - perhaps Australia was used as the dead goat in the Afghan sport of buzkashi. Maybe the Americans are happy to bounce off our stupidity in their difficult and delicate discussions with China.
Leadership in these difficult times, whether from former prime minister Abbott or the current Prime Minister, has been and is appalling. We really have been condemned to be a mob of losers under Morrison.
- Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator.