Kevin’s there to lend a hand when Julia stumbles
Surprise, surprise. Just as the Prime Minister is winding up a highly successful India visit, up pops the headline magnet, Kevin Rudd.
A pattern is emerging where any advance made by the embattled PM is immediately body-checked by her vanquished predecessor - and particularly so if her success involves his treasured turf of foreign affairs.
It didn’t help that Ms Gillard had a nasty tumble approaching a final doorstop interview in the Indian capital - her awkward face-plant caught on television cameras and beamed straight back to Australia.
Weakened leaders are vulnerable to the symbolic power of such moments even though in substance, they mean nothing at all.
Kim Beazley for example, verbally stumbled in his last days as Labor leader mixing up the two names used by an Australian model facing legal difficulties in Indonesia, Michelle Lee and Michelle Leslie. When he confused Karl Rove with Rove McManus, it was game over.
If that weren’t sufficient humiliation, he fell over literally on an icy Washington “side-walk’’ shortly after arriving for his new gig as Australian ambassador in early 2010 requiring him to present his credentials late and on crutches.
John Howard stumbled a few times. Once when departing a stage, badly twisting his ankle, and another time entering a Perth radio station. The former brought unkind smiles to his detractors but it was the latter case that seemed to sum up his deteriorating fortunes against the ascendant Kevin Rudd in 2007.
To her credit, Ms Gillard convincingly laughed off the fall as an occupational hazard for women combining high heels and soft turf.
But the timing was awful. These bilateral visits can be light-on for interesting pictures - unless by interesting one means snaps of leaders shaking hands, inspecting honour-guards, and meeting officials.
In time, the trip itself (to India that is, not the ground) will be regarded as the most significant foreign policy achievement of the Gillard premiership - not bad for a PM who started out saying she had no great passion for the international stage.
And this one is hers alone given it was her push to overturn the ALP ban on uranium sales to India at last year’s ALP national conference.
Her state visit has marked the dawning of a new era of closer relations between the two democracies.
Australia’s foreign policy stance in the region had been criticised as essentially a China-first policy, so a re-ordering of priorities by elevating India to be one of six countries of highest importance is seen as significant both in the sub-continent and beyond.
As well as lucrative uranium sales, closer ties on a raft of commercial fronts should follow. Defence relationships will strengthen too with joint military exercises and personnel exchanges planned.
It is a strategic shift that makes sense as both economies position in the Asian century even if more people remember the stumble than the talks which preceded it.
But Gillard’s patchy fortune is not hostage to merely her own slips and falls. Just as she was campaigning in New York a few weeks back for a seat on the UN Security Council, that most reportable of backbenchers, Kevin Rudd chimed in from Beijing to remind Australians who started the bid and why.
That interview followed his eyebrow-raising re-emergence on to the public stage during the week immediately following her father’s death.
This week he was at it again doing another long-form interview with Lateline calling for more policy depth from Canberra in a move clearly designed to rob the PM’s foreign policy triumphs of oxygen.
Some observers have unkindly linked Mr Rudd’s interventions with forthcoming Newspoll surveys. While that is not the case this week, it is only because Newspoll has been delayed - a fact he was probably unaware of when agreeing to the Lateline spot.
In any event, there is a Nielsen poll in the field this weekend. Could it be that Mr Rudd has concluded, as Tony Abbott has also, that keeping Ms Gillard’s Newspoll ratings down gives him the best chance of replacing her?
It reminds one of Yes Minister’s Jim Hacker who explained to his bemused wife at one stage, that for a prime minister, defining your true enemy can be difficult. The Opposition, he told her, is merely the opposition in exile. Your real problem is the opposition in residence. He was referring to the public service bureaucracy but the joke holds just as well for Gillard’s problem with Kevin Rudd.
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