Gillard’s political narrative match fit for Vladivostok
Two years ago, the freshly minted Julia Gillard PM declared from Europe’s bureaucratic capital that she was a home girl at heart.
“I’m just going to be really up-front about this - foreign policy is not my passion. It’s not what I’ve spent my life doing,” she had said.
“So, yes, if I had a choice I’d probably more be in a school watching kids learn to read in Australia than here in Brussels at international meetings.”
It was a low-brow start especially given that she’d just come from Afghanistan where Australians were fighting and dying in pursuit of some pretty abstract and contestable Australian foreign policy objectives.
It was also a cheap shot - dog-whistle politics 101 transparently designed to mark her out as different from Kevin Rudd or “Kevin 747” as he’d been derided.
Whether it was dud advice or her own poor judgment, she had concluded the public, weary of Rudd’s gallivanting, is generally suspicious of the inflated gains supposed to be had from international glad-handing and jet-stream diplomacy.
Since then of course, Ms Gillard has done what prime ministers are bound to do by travelling extensively. And she has done it well, realising that Australian leaders cannot simply duck G20 and Pacific Island Forum meetings, and nor can they dismiss the value of personal representations in Washington and London, and Jakarta.
Also in common with others before her, Ms Gillard has learned on the job developing a certain deftness of touch on foreign policy and a solid reputation among other leaders as both a quick study and a skilled advocate.
In an increasingly interconnected world, international forums have become more, not less important as countries strive to align domestic and global opportunities, and to ensure others act in ways that do not prejudice their interests. No one wants another global financial meltdown.
Today she arrives in Vladivostok for this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
While the European Central Bank and European leaders wrestle with the sovereign debt crisis, leaders gathered here in the world’s real growth region know the GFC problem did not start in Europe and nor did it end there.
Happily in step with her host, Russia’s strongman President Vladimir Putin, Ms Gillard plans to use this APEC meeting to push the critical role of education as an economic growth enabler.
It’s the perfect synergy of international and domestic interests and Ms Gillard’s own political narrative. Already marketing herself as the education prime minister at home, she wants other leaders to agree to reduce barriers to cross border higher education allowing students to move more freely including mid-degree between universities in the region.
As an established leader in this field, the benefits to Australia of standardising higher-ed accreditation rules and in moving towards the concept of compatible university monitoring and regulation systems are obvious.
With potentially hundreds of millions of people needing degrees and diplomas in coming years, Australia is well placed to take advantage of the demand both through attracting more students from China, India, and Indonesia (it is already worth $10 billion to Australia), and by branching out with more uni campuses on foreign shores.
It is just one example of the ways in which increased international cooperation, if it can be wrangled, can have domestic rewards. Progress will be slow but it has to start somewhere.
On the downside, the APEC comes amid escalating tension over US repositioning in the Pacific seen in Beijing as a thinly veiled China containment strategy. Australia of course is playing an increasing role in the Obama White House’s so-called Pacific pivot.
There is also grief between China and smaller countries over China’s aggressive claim to various islands of commercial and strategic value in the South China and East China seas. This is no small problem.
Beijing’s tone in recent days has been scathing about the US’s alleged siding with smaller countries over the islands. En route to APEC via the Chinese capital, Hillary Clinton had her meeting cancelled with the man about to become China’s next president. Few believe that was anything other than a calculated move.
Formerly known as America’s deputy sheriff in the region, Australia must navigate these prickly issues carefully if the benefits on offer are to be unlocked. Ms Gillard at least believes she is up to the task which is quite a reversal from a PM who once had no “passion” for diplomacy.
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