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Australia's prime ministerial shuffle is hurting its diplomacy

Australia's prime ministerial shuffle is hurting its diplomacy

When the rest of the world dealt with Australia in the past, it was familiar figures that emerged from the VIP planes and who stretched out their experienced hands. For over a decade during the Howard years, Australia not only had the same prime minister, but also the same foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer, and treasurer, Peter Costello. Never before in Australian political history had there been such continuity of service.

Nowadays the planners of APEC summits especially must suffer sleepless nights. Do they order an exotic shirt to the frame of Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull? Do they tailor a shirt or a blouse? 

With five prime ministers in as many years, so much change has come in such a short space of time that it has surely damaged the conduct of Australia's foreign affairs. No Australian prime minister can cast a long shadow on the international stage for the simple reason they do not get to stride it for long enough. The personal chemistry so important in international diplomacy seldom gets the chance to brew.

Kurt M. Campbell, the former US Assistant Secretary of State, used to say that Barack Obama had more of a mind meld with Kevin Rudd than any other international leader. But the relationship never reached its fruition because Rudd was ousted so quickly.

What adds to the sense of disorientation internationally is that these overnight changes of leadership can come with sudden changes of personal belief and style. Turnbull, a committed environmentalist, republican and foreign policy thinker with more of an Asian focus, has replaced a climate change sceptic, monarchist and Anglophile. Rudd, a thrusting internationalist and multilateralist, was replaced by Julia Gillard, a prime minister who told the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien in an early television interview that she had no great appetite for summiteering.

What were fellow world leaders to make of that? [fold]

Presumably, their Canberra-based ambassadors would have informed their capitals that Gillard made that statement for domestic consumption: it was a calculated attempt to distance herself from Rudd rather than the rest of the world. But it spoke of another glaring problem of the rolling regicide of the past five years. Prime ministers are so consumed by their own survival in office that it breeds the kind of Canberra-centric parochialism that has become a hallmark of Australian politics. This insularity – what Peter Hartcher has aptly called the 'provincial reflex' – found voice at the G20 summit in Brisbane when Tony Abbott shared with world leaders his frustration at opposition to his proposed Medicare co-payments. The brutopia has gone hand in hand with a chronic myopia.

In international diplomacy, a seniority system is at play based not just on national but personal rankings. World leaders naturally tend to accrue more influence the longer they spend in office, partly because political longevity is a currency that fellow prime ministers and presidents understand and respect. Angela Merkel cuts such a dominant figure in Europe not only because she is the German Chancellor but because she has been in office for almost ten years. Before that, Jacques Chirac, who served 12 years as President, enjoyed equivalent clout. John Howard came to wield such influence on the international stage partly as a result of his 11 year tenure.

Regular changes of leadership undercut diplomatic influence and even basic global citizenry. It is hard, for example, to see an Australian prime minister being asked to become a 'friend of the chairman', as Rudd was ahead of the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009, for the simple reason they might be a no-show. In the late-1990s, Peter Costello played a crucial role in establishing the G20, partly because he was such a well-known and well-connected figure among global finance ministers and central bank governors.

Nor is it only prime ministers who have had shortened tenures as a result of the revolving-door politics. Since Alexander Downer, no foreign affairs minister has made it to three years in the post. If you combine the time that Stephen Smith, Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr and Julie Bishop have criss-crossed the planet, it still falls a long way short of Downer’s 11- years. 

What is impossible to measure is the impact on Australia’s soft power of the mocking international press coverage that greets each change of leader.

As I write, The Washington Post, the parish pump of the Beltway, is running a video showing Tony Abbott repeatedly eating a raw onion. In a piece for the BBC, I’ve called Canberra, not for the first time, the 'coup capital of the democratic world.' Once again, commentators around the world are struggling to understand why the developed world’s most stable economy has produced its most unstable politics – they are flip-sides of the same coin. One of the challenges for Malcolm Turnbull, a figure harder to lampoon than Abbott, will be to stop Australian politics from being a global laughing stock – to stop the virals.

Obviously, Australian foreign policy can still function in spite of the chaos in Canberra. Important foreign trade deals have been struck with China, Japan and South Korea. Rudd helped elevate the G20 to the leader level, making it a far more significant body. Successful prime ministerial visits have been made, such as Julia Gillard’s trip to China in 2012 which scored a coup of a different kind: a commitment to annual leadership talks. Australia’s first spell of president of the UN Security Council in September 2012 started with Rudd in charge and ended with Abbott, but its two-year stint was still a success (partly because of its highly respected ambassador Gary Quinlan).  

But that famed Australian punch surely would have been firmer had it been delivered by one or two prime ministers over the past half-decade rather than five. 

 (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)

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