Gillard’s doing just fine on the world stage
The Prime Minister has now spent more time overseas than her predecessor ‘Kevin747’ did in the same period.
Partly a product of timing – the end of the year begs attendance at a number of multilateral forums – she has visited the troops in Afghanistan; lobbied for the World Cup in Switzerland; conducted bilateral visits to both Malaysia and Indonesia; and attended the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels, the East Asian Summit in Vietnam, the G20 in South Korea and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Japan.
Gillard’s latest trip was to Portugal for a NATO meeting on Afghanistan spending by her calculation “fifty-five hours in the air for eighteen on the ground”.
Reflecting earlier this month in Japan on her travels before flying overnight back home for Parliament she said, “There are a few moments when you would have to say it has been a bit slow but overwhelming it has been a good experience”. But just how she has been doing out there on the world stage depends on which audience you speak to.
Domestically Gillard’s trips have to some extent cemented her role as Prime Minister thanks to smiling photos with the likes of Barack Obama, Hu Jintao, Dmitri Medvedev and David Cameron as well as military guards of honour lining the steps of her VIP jet at every port of call.
But her lack of experience in contrast to Rudd’s continues to plague her with everyone seemingly waiting for her to trip up.
In fairness her comments last month that she was not “passionate” about foreign affairs did not help but much of her work abroad has so far been overshadowed by more trivial aspects. In Malaysia her counterpart came down with chicken pox so she had to meet his deputy instead; in Indonesia the President had to cancel her state dinner to visit people affected by the volcano eruption; and at the G20 they mistook her for an Austrian.
To her credit the Prime Minister is not letting it get to her though.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Phil Coorey reports a Gillard intimate as saying the “Julia versus Kevin” in foreign affairs “would have some significance if she wasn’t comfortable in her own skin, if it was messing with her head. But Gillard in no way is intellectually or emotionally benchmarking herself against Kevin. She’s just doing what she does to the best of her abilities.”
While the public might not be noticing those abilities yet those in the diplomatic corridors certainly are.
Following her meeting with President Obama on Saturday word around APEC was that his aides were impressed by her ability to effortlessly transition across different topics “without a single note in front of her”. She has also recently sealed a significant economic deal with Indonesia and a similar one concerning uranium with Russia that were both left lingering for some time.
While Gillard might not be a natural on the world stage she is slowly realising the best approach is to just be herself: “I like dealing with people and whether you are dealing with leaders of the G20, whether you are dealing with leaders here at APEC, whether you are at home talking to Australians about what’s on their minds, people are people.”
Another strategy she has employed is to retreat to topics she is most comfortable talking about. While Rudd would gravitate to topics of regional architecture, nuclear non-proliferation and the rise of China, Gillard used a speech in Seoul last Thursday to focus on how interest rates affect households and another in Japan on Saturday to talk about education and skills in the region.
The Prime Minister should also take solace from leaders like Thatcher and Reagan who had very little foreign policy experience before entering office. But she has told the Australian Financial Review’s David Crowe that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating have not been shy in offering advice: “It is very hard to have a conversation with either Bob or Paul that doesn’t turn to these matters extensively”.
Just like Rudd who was known to phone stalk other leaders – supposedly switching personal mobile numbers with President Lee of Korea driving diplomats crazy – Gillard is also forging strong relations with her counterparts overseas.
She says: “I certainly feel like I’ve got to know Stephen Harper, the Canadian, quite well because he has been at all of them (summits); Cameron a fair bit; New Zealand – John I already knew quite well when he was in Opposition and have had the opportunity to interact with Obama and have had some interaction with President Hu but not a formal discussion yet.”
On the world stage these relationships matter.
The Washington Post and New York Times have both recently run pieces on who Obama considers his “genuine friends”. While Gillard – but perhaps more interestingly Rudd – was not mentioned, she says the two got on well joking about whether Question Time should be adopted in the United States amongst other things.
The Prime Minister herself acknowledged the real work “happens in the leaders-only coffee and relaxation area and the leaders-only lunches when you can get through the machinery and have a human-to-human conversation…On one level complete trivia to all of the sort of issues you would expect people to talk about”.
Being one of the few female world leaders is seemingly not distracting the Prime Minister either. “It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable or anything like that but it does say something about our world”, she says. Of the forty-three leaders at ASEM only four were women, there are only three in the G20 and she is the sole female leader in the EAS and APEC, which she laughed off as presenting some difficulties only when they needed to stand in a rock pool for the official photo, wearing high-heels of course.
While the Prime Minister is unlikely to lead our delegation to the next United Nations climate negotiations in Mexico next month the risk now as The Daily Telegraph’s Malcolm Farr has highlighted is that her travel becomes excessive in the way it did for Kevin Rudd.
If it does there is little doubt Tony Abbott will latch onto it after saying during the election campaign he doesn’t “think there is a need for the Prime Minister to be at every international talk fest”.
But despite probable trips to China and the United States early in the New Year the Prime Ministerial calendar of international summits is looking bare until mid-next year when it will become prolific once again.
For the moment at least the Prime Minister seems to be enjoying the world stage and avoiding its pitfalls unlike the Chief Executive of Hong Kong who fell asleep next to her at APEC.
“Well we have our own plane so that kind of helps” she jokes even if she did tell President Obama it was small enough to park under the wing of Air Force One!
The key difference when it comes to Rudd and Gillard as our chief diplomat is not so much their background but that the latter comes to the role with very little of a defined view on our place in the world.
That is why it is all the more important we take notice like the rest of the world is as she finds her feet.
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