Tony Abbott in Taiwan: An Imperfect Messenger 

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Tony Abbott in Taiwan: An Imperfect Messenger 

Abbott’s visit may have been counterproductive both for Taiwan itself and for Taiwan’s support in Australia.

Tony Abbott in Taiwan: An Imperfect Messenger 
Credit: Official Photo by Makoto Lin / Office of the President

Our current domestic and global political landscapes can currently be defined by a single psychological impulse. This is an impulse Yascha Mounk has given the term “180ism,” although I think a more elegant term would be “binary reaction.” This the tendency to be diametrically opposed to an idea due to who has expressed it, rather than the merits of the argument itself. It is a bad-faith approach to public debate where labels are more important than evidence, and where people are pushed to recite shibboleths in order to project themselves as being above reproach.

I was contemplating this phenomenon as I read about the former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, visiting Taiwan last week in order to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen and deliver a speech at the Yushan Forum. I was concerned that due this psychological impulse Abbott’s visit may have been counterproductive for both Taiwan itself and for Taiwan’s support in Australia. 

Given that Abbott is a uniquely polarizing figure, for a great many people in Australia the truth must simply be the blunt opposite of whatever comes out of his mouth. Admittedly, this is usually a pretty good rule of thumb to live by; however, in the case of his visit to Taiwan this would be an enormous oversight, and a huge disservice to the people of Taiwan. 

Abbott’s speech highlighted the impressive manner in which Taiwan made the smooth transition from authoritarianism to a prosperous and vibrant liberal democracy. It did so while facing relentless pressure from Beijing. He also stressed the importance of the Taiwanese people being the masters of their own future, and that Australia should not be “indifferent to the fate of a fellow democracy.” These are all positive assertions that Abbott should be commended for making. 

Yet with Abbott traveling to Taiwan there was a more complex game than just a former Australian prime minister praising another democracy. The official line from the Australian government was that Abbott was traveling to Taiwan as a private citizen. Yet given the sensitivity of the Taiwan topic to the People’s Republic of China — not to mention the current tensions between Canberra and Beijing — it would have been extraordinary if Canberra wasn’t made aware of such a high-profile visit and did not give it tacit approval. 

However, if the Australian government was hoping to send a message with Abbott’s trip, then it didn’t have a sophisticated enough awareness to consider just what kind of messenger Abbott is, and how he may in fact undermine some of Canberra’s aims. 

If the goal was to simply upset Beijing, then China’s predictable hysterical response demonstrated that this was accomplished. They were effectively “owned,” as is now another common feature of our political landscape. However, if the objective was to enhance domestic support for Taiwan in Australia, then there could be few worse choices for the job. The binary reaction of much of the Australian public, who are suspicious of Abbott, will not have strengthened positive sentiment toward Taiwan in Australia. 

While Abbott’s speech held some genuinely important points, his credibility on the protection of liberal democracy is unfortunately severely lacking. Abbott previously made the now standard reactionary pilgrimage to Budapest to kiss the feet of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, indicating that he clearly does not value the principles of liberal democracy in and of themselves. As Edward Luce wrote last week in the Financial Times, Orban’s symbolic appeal is that he has demonstrated how liberal democracies can backslide into illiberalism with minimal disruption. If Taiwan represents the smooth transition from authoritarianism to liberal democracy, Orban’s Hungary represents the smooth transition in the other direction. Abbott’s association with Orban reveals these sympathies.

It is therefore apparent that Abbott’s support for Taiwan is simply an expression of his own binary reaction against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). His trip to Taiwan was not initiated out of any positive, mutual alignment with Taiwan’s values; it was, for a man renowned for his negativity, another negative act. Born simply out of his opposition to the CCP, Abbott’s motivations are therefore lacking the integrity to truly strengthen the bridge between Taiwan and Australia. This is what makes him an imperfect messenger for what should be a crucially important role as an Australian envoy (whether this mission is acknowledged by the Australian government or not). 

However, if we were to put aside such negativity ourselves, and seek a good faith interpretation of Abbott’s trip, then there are positive lessons that he may have learned in Taiwan. The hope is that Abbott would be inspired by the commitment of the people of Taiwan to protect their liberal democracy from authoritarianism. He may recognize this is a remarkable display of resilience and now dedicate himself to safeguarding liberal democracy against all forms of authoritarianism.