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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 03:36 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 03:36 | SYDNEY

Gillard following the Howard playbook

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28 April 2011 09:07

If Kevin Rudd is earning comparisons to 'Doc' Evatt (or more charitably Gareth Evans), Gillard's inspiration for her foreign policy seems to be the man she helped defeat: John Howard.

Andrew Shearer, Howard's foreign policy adviser, makes the case:

...Gillard's trip to Asia marks a return to many of the key tenets of former prime minister John Howard's foreign policy. Despite Paul Keating's gibe that Asian leaders would never deal with him, Howard left office with an enviable record as a statesman. He achieved his aim of revitalising the US alliance while strengthening our most important regional relationships, particularly those with Japan, India, China and Indonesia.

There's much to this analogy. Both Howard and Gillard grew up obsessed by IR, but they spelt it Industrial not International Relations. Both are also small detail people, prefering personal negotiations to grand statements.

Hence their natural strategy of focusing on smaller bilateral deals and viewing Australia's economic connections with the world as the basis of all relationships.

Unlike Rudd, Gillard is firmly committed to free trade and she lists Tom Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree as her favourite non-fiction book. I'm not sure if the PM has read Michael Wesley's book The Howard Paradox, but she could do much worse in studying how Howard established himself in the Asia-Pacific.

Howard came to the region with bigger baggage than Gillard, but he helped get around that by trying to separate issues within relationships, so that one controversy did not damage the overall relationship. Howard (and Downer) also took advantage of opportunities to prove they weren't just fair-weather friends by providing assistance after the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis and 2004 tsunami. 

Howard spent many years getting comfortable in the region and one of the big reasons for his later term influence was his percieved dominance of Australian politics. Being an older male may also have helped.

If the analogies of Gillard as Howard and Rudd as Evatt hold true, it is a balance that could work. The PM grounded on the essentials while the foreign minister has space to create and innovate. It's unusual, but it might bring out the best in them both.

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