The risky game of playing favourites

This is a government of favourites. There is Tim Wilson at the Human Rights Commission, following his good works at the Institute of Public Affairs. Sophie Mirabella, sunk in Indi, now sitting aboard the Australian Submarine Corporation. Peter Costello as chair of the $96 billion Future Fund. Maurice Newman atop the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council. Dick Warburton as head of the Renewable Energy Target Review.

For every favourite, however, there must be someone shunned. Joseph Skrzynski rolled at SBS, despite intervention from Malcolm Turnbull. Barrie Cassidy resigning under pressure from his unpaid position as chairman of the Old Parliament House Advisory Council – replaced by a former Howard minister, David Kemp, and Robert Menzies’ daughter, Heather Henderson. Even David Smith got a spot there, the man who read the proclamation dismissing Gough Whitlam as prime minister. A long wait for a thank you, to be sure, but a thank you all the same.

But favourites are difficult in diplomacy. In a region such as ours, caught as it is in shifting dynamics and changing economies, picking favourites is a fool’s game.

Ahead of this week’s trip abroad, Tony Abbott made no secret of the fact he has a favourite in Asia: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In a statement as unnecessary as it was provocative, he said: “As far as I am concerned, Japan is Australia’s best friend in Asia. And we want to keep it a very strong friendship.”

The language was deliberate – Abbott’s halting delivery made sure of that – and could only be seen as a slight to Indonesia and China. Abbott talked as if there was a formal alliance between Australia and Japan, which there is not. He invited Abe to address a joint sitting of parliament. The two men are friendly – and outliers in a region that doesn’t much need outliers.

The pay off, this week, was a trade agreement – although it owed not so much to Abbott as it did to the seven years of negotiation that preceded it. Cheaper cars here, more incentives to sell beef, wine and seafood there.

The deal highlighted the amity between Japan and Australia, coming days before Abbott arrived in China with the hope of negotiating a similar pact. And here the game of favourites played again.

The Abbott government has had a difficult start to its relationship with China. Already, Julie Bishop has been rebuked by her Chinese counterpart. Abbott’s key diplomatic adviser has been dismissed as “hairy chested” in his approach.

And so the tension after Japan was enormous. Mostly, it went well in China – no agreement, but no disaster. Australia’s key role in the hunt for missing Malaysian Airline MH370, high on the agenda, cannot be understated as a distraction.

Abbott’s first major trip to Asia will be remembered as much for what it avoided as what it achieved. But it is a reminder of how precarious favouritism can be in a region that changes as constantly as ours.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 12, 2014 as "The risky game of playing favourites".

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