The path to a foreign policy coup for Gillard
Elections are rarely fought on matters of foreign policy, but Julia Gillard has a rare opportunity to dominate the scene through some simple manoeuvring.
In a few weeks time the Pacific Islands Forum will meet in Vanuatu. The annual talkfest brings together leaders of fourteen states in the region with a handful of other observers.
It seems unlikely on current posturing that the Prime Minister will attend the gathering. Even Foreign Minister Stephen Smith is doubtful saying he will make a decision closer to the date and assesses his attendance on a “case-by-case” basis. Something Alexander Downer, who attended both the 1998 and 2007 forums when they clashed with the election campaign, has rightly called an insult to the region. If the Prime Minister is really as tactful a politician as many think she will attend the forum.
Footage of Julia Gillard strutting the world stage are yet to grace our television screens and newspapers and nothing solidifies your role as Prime Minister more than rubbing shoulders with other leaders.
Immediately after her ascension to the top job she missed an unparalleled opportunity to do so when she neglected to attend the G20 meeting in Canada. The new Deputy PM, Wayne Swan, who was already attending, was forced to fly solo.
Admittedly leaving the country would not have been a good look after Kevin Rudd’s travel schedule was much criticised and he became known as ‘Kevin747’. But Gillard shaking hands with the likes of Barack Obama, Hu Jintao, Dmitry Medvedev and David Cameron so early on would have more than made up for any backlash.
The reality is that election campaigns seek to rightly level the playing field. Most media outlets provide equal coverage, the Opposition Leader is also given the use of one of the RAAF’s VIP jets the Prime Minister uses on a daily basis, and living in the institution of The Lodge becomes irrelevant because the candidates are constantly on the road.
But by attending an international forum, Julia Gillard solidifies herself as the Prime Minister in charge of important matters like foreign policy and the national interest – with Tony Abbott left in the country to walk through a shopping mall or kiss some babies.
True, the PIF is a lot smaller than the G20 in gravitas but few can forget the imagery of ‘King Kevin’ decked out in Ray-Bans and a tropical shirt at the 2008 gathering – legs crossed in a lounge chair looking like an African dictator.
In part this is emphasised by our role as the kingmaker of the forum as the largest player in the region and its major outpost to the rest of the world’s multilaterals such as APEC, ASEAN and the G20. We are also the current chair, a role which was largely neglected by Kevin Rudd in the latter half of his Prime Ministership.
Julia Gillard is also in desperate need of more experience on the world stage.
When she visited Iraq last year it was the first time she had flown in a Blackhawk helicopter – something that is almost a prerequisite experience for a world leader! While she is known for her attendance at the second-track diplomatic gatherings of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue and the Australian Israel Leadership Forum, besides these and her dispatching to India in the wake of student violence she remains relatively untested.
For the first time in decades the country’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister both lack a background on the world stage in any way and Australia has a foreign policy deficit at the top. Mind you, this is no different on the Opposition side and Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has probably made more fumbles than the ‘steady as she goes’ Smith. The exceptionally talented Shadow Environment Minister Greg Hunt would probably be the best qualified to become Foreign Minister if the Coalition wins the election based on his CV.
The Prime Minister’s policy agenda would also be well served by her attendance at the forum.
The fallout from her speech to The Lowy Institute earlier this month where she implied that a regional processing centre would be established in East Timor continues. With the first asylum seeker boat arrival of the campaign on Wednesday, this issue is only set to intensify and will be a key platform of the Coalition’s bid for government.
Since that speech neither Gillard nor Smith have met with the East Timorese President or Prime Minister, but luckily for them they have observer status at the forum. A quick bilateral meeting replete with a photo opportunity of smiling faces, hand shaking and awkward jokes would quickly neutralise that line of attack from Abbott and Scott Morrison. Nauru is a full-member of the forum and a similar meeting should take place with its President, Macus Stephen, who after all controls an already established taxpayer funded processing centre.
The sidelines of the forum would also provide an important and appropriate stage for announcements surrounding climate change and foreign aid (announcements at the forum would be inappropriate – not least because they are out of the country, but because the Prime Minister would attend in her capacity as a caretaker).
No region of the world better exemplifies the need for developed countries to act on the issue of climate change than those that are sinking the fastest. Pressure also continues to be placed on the government who are yet to reach their foreign aid commitment from the 2007 election to raise contributions in-line with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.
There is also of course the forum’s official agenda and the need for Australia to progress its desire for the PACER Plus deal to free up trade in the region and to deal with the Fijian situation who are currently suspended from the group.
Fiji’s leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, would love for nothing more than Australia not to attend, in light of his alternative gathering this week that included five members of the forum. With suspicions that he will not allow suspended High Commissioner Sarah Roberts to be replaced this is all the more important and a chance for the Prime Minister to show off her newly found negotiating skills in the wake of the mining tax.
While elections are after all won or lost generally on ‘kitchen table politics’ except during wartime – our commitment in Afghanistan though is almost completely bipartisan – the campaign is yet to focus on foreign policy in a significant way.
That is of course besides an announcement by the Coalition that they would halt Australia’s campaign for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and rumours about Rudd’s future in the world – the latest I am hearing is that the new Executive Secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change might be replaced with Rudd, rather than his appointment to a climate change panel which would bring minimal commitment.
But the reality is that the Prime Minister could do a day-trip to the forum in Vanuatu. It is after all closer to Canberra than Perth.
As recent as Monday she said on television she “would like to think that engagement in our region is what would stamp the Gillard government. I mean, that is where our future lies”.
Taking a single day away from the campaign is hardly going to give the Opposition ammunition against her and would play well to both her domestic and international constituencies.
The effects of which on the election campaign would be a Gillard foreign policy coup.
Thom Woodroofe, 20, is the 2009 Young Victorian of the Year and founder of Left Right Think-Tank. He is a frequent commentator on international affairs and was a keynote speaker at a United Nations conference in The Pacific last year. Email him on thomwoodroofe(at)gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @thomwoodroofe
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