Australian diplomacy had a very different look and feel when I arrived here at the back end of 2006. John Howard was still the prime minister, just as George W Bush and Tony Blair remained in charge in Washington and Westminster. Consequently, there was a strongly post-9/11 'war on terror' feel to the conduct of foreign affairs.

The big global story then was not the rise of China, but the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Howard Government was embroiled in the oil-for-wheat AWB scandal and under attack from a workaholic shadow foreign affairs minister by the name of Kevin Rudd, who was seeking to undermine the Government's reputation and boost his own.

Maintaining the relationship with Washington was the overriding priority, even if it incurred political damage at home. For many Australians, the treatment of David Hicks at Guantanamo Bay violated the country's fairness doctrine. John Howard's refusal to ratify Kyoto also reinforced the sense that he was out of touch and overly loyal to his Texan friend and soul-mate. But it made strategic as well as ideological sense to the then prime minister.

Regionally, the most nettlesome problems were Fiji and the Solomon Islands. The most controversial military deployment was neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan, but rather the insertion of the ADF into the Northern Territory. Back in September 2006, only one digger had lost his life in Afghanistan.

Though still a year off, the biggest diplomatic diary item was the forthcoming APEC summit in Sydney. In those days, however, the coverage of international news organisations still had a distinctly Atlantic bias, and we paid comparatively little attention to the geopolitics of the Asia Pacific.

Tellingly, the main story to come from APEC was the slapstick of the Chaser Boys gate-crashing the party. As for the domestic press corps, the drama unfolded behind the scenes, as senior cabinet figures met secretly to discuss a plan to oust John Howard. Still, APEC provided a portent of things to come. By then, Rudd was Labor leader, and hinted at Australia's, as well as the world's, diplomatic reorientation by showing off his fluency in Mandarin.

Shortly after my arrival, there was a G20 finance ministers meeting in Melbourne, but it came at a time when the focus was still on the G8. Why, George W Bush reportedly did not even know of the existence of the G20 until Kevin Rudd put him right in a late-night phone conversation from Kirribilli.

It was also a period when the BBC Australia's correspondent was never troubled by visits from British prime ministers or foreign secretaries. Tony Blair, who ventured here prior to becoming PM to meet Rupert Murdoch and his senior executives, never made a prime ministerial visit. Nor did his foreign secretaries, though Jack Straw planned to visit but had to cancel en route for family reasons.

Despite Britain's neglect, however, Australia could still make its favourite diplomatic boast: that it was punching way above its weight. And both leaders of the major parties, John Howard and Kim Beazley, had a strong, if Washington-centric, worldview.

Their passion for foreign affairs highlights one of the most noticeable changes between then and now. Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott has demonstrated anywhere near the same intellectual engagement with the world beyond these shores. Set-piece foreign policy speeches have the feel of a Box-ticking exercise, part of their job description. Many of their domestic priorities, from border protection to the 'small Australia' policy over the 'big', have a distinctly parochial air. Recently, ahead of her visit to China, Julia Gillard was gracious to appear before the Foreign Correspondents' Association in Sydney, becoming the first prime minister to do so since Bob Hawke. But in the Q&A session afterwards, she delivered what felt like stock, briefing-paper responses.

The irony, as I have noted before, is that the world has never shown so much interest in Australia, economically, politically, diplomatically and culturally. Still, there is a nagging sense that neither Ms Gillard nor Mr Abbott has fully returned the compliment.

Another paradox, given Canberra's insularity, is that the famed Aussie punch is stronger than ever before. That said, the challenges of balancing the security relationship with Washington and the commercial rapport with China now require gymnastic as well as pugilistic skills.

The most perceptible shift here is that Australia's growing 'middle power' strength has been institutionalised in the enhanced role of the G20, the heightened importance of APEC and through membership of the UN Security Council.

It has also been diarised. There is the new strategic dialogue with China, which has been put on an annual footing — Julia Gillard's most eye-catching foreign policy success. The AUKMIN talks with Britain are now a yearly affair, which reflects a newfound sense of diplomatic parity unrecognisable from the imperial condescension displayed by Whitehall in the not so distant past. As part of a wider geographic rethink, London has recognised that Australia is indeed in the right place at the right time. William Hague has referred to 'Facebook diplomacy' and the importance of global diplomatic networks. A great admirer of this country (after all, they say that an Australian is a Yorkshireman with a suntan) he has elevated Australia into being a much more important 'friend'.

Washington senses this, too. Indeed, who would have thought, when I came here in 2006, that a black US president would one day fly to Canberra to announce an 'Asian pivot'.

The consequentiality of Australia is now a given. It is reflected in the growing number of news organisations that have either boosted their presence or coverage here (the Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Bloomberg) or set up shop (Sky News UK, Al-Jazeera, Guardian Australia). The agenda has changed, too. Australia is central to the seismic geopolitical story of our age: the rise of China. Few countries offer a better vantage point from which to gauge the problems and prospects posed by China's inexorable rise, an advance that seemed somewhat abstract only six years ago when we still used the phrase 'emerging nation'.

Twitter had not been invented when I arrived here from India, so DFAT's enthusiastic, if sluggish, embrace of e-diplomacy marks another obvious shift. Like so many other technological developments, it has removed one of the traditional obstacles to Australian diplomacy: distance.

Australian diplomacy remains hampered by funding constraints. Nor can it speak with a clarion voice on human rights, given its handling of the boat people problem. Listening to Bob Carr deliver the British High Commission's Magna Carta lecture in Sydney recently, which was a paean to human rights, it was hard not to think of the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, not to mention Christmas Island.

Happily, my next posting, as the BBC's New York and UN correspondent, will keep me in close contact with Australia. In September, you will take the presidency of UN Security Council, and another chapter will be opened in your diplomatic and national rise.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.