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It\'s all foreign to Julia

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COMMENTS

14 March 2011 09:35

Malcolm Cook has kicked off a debate with one of those simple questions which are among his specialities: what is Prime Minister Gillard's approach to foreign policy' Various responses were offered here and Malcolm produced his own partial answer based on the Gillard speech to Congress.

All good stuff. But, for once, Malcolm can be faulted for asking the wrong question. Julia Gillard doesn't have a fully-developed world view. To get to the top of Australian politics, she hasn't needed one. Neither has Tony Abbott. Both are post-Cold War pols. Part of the peace dividend has been that young politicians don't have to decide where they stand in that titanic standoff between ideologically-opposed nuclear-armed superpowers (ah, now that was language to stir student politics!).

Or, to be kinder, if globalisation means the domestic feeds naturally into the global, then the young pol can do her bit for the globe by getting the domestic stuff right.

The correct question, methinks, is 'what is foreign policy going to do to Julia''. And even though her leadership is not one year old, the answers are in. Five international issues stand out, and the first could kill her career. They are:

  1. Climate change.
  2. Afghanistan.
  3. Border control.
  4. The US alliance.
  5. China.

By the end of his time in office, John Howard's international to-do list was much the same, although the order was different, and Iraq was ahead of Afghanistan. On climate change and Afghanistan, Gillard has made hard choices she will now have to carry through. On border control, she made a lousy start and is just trying to forget it.

The Prime Minister's assertion that Australia will be in Afghanistan for another decade was an example of a leader winning by upping the stakes. Instead of folding, she raised. At the end of last year's parliamentary debate, for good or ill, Gillard had claimed the Afghanistan war as her own. That call will be judged when her legacy is weighed.

Staying the tough road in Afghanistan is different politics to introducing a carbon price — the issue that will make or break her. To win, Gillard has to reverse her career habit of mind. She must argue the international dimensions of climate change to overcome domestic concerns about cost and complexity.

Labor gave away much of its ammunition when it ditched its first attempt, then dumped Kevin Rudd with it. That line about the 'greatest moral challenge of our time' will be hard to do with a straight face. Going global and giving much more detail are what Gillard will have to do if climate change is not to claim here as it did Howard, Rudd and Turnbull. 

Gillard has just given us her version of the US alliance, and proved emphatically that she remembers the Latham lesson: being nasty about the US carries political and electoral costs. The images of the Prime Minister kicking the footy in the White House and in that red jacket on the floor of Congress are the symbols of a strong embrace of the alliance, both for its history and future costs. The pictures were striking but the message was 'more of the same'.

Gillard doesn't want to change the alliance. She just wants it to keep giving. With a few changes, the Prime Minister can use much the same line when she does the matching visit to China. The 'matching' bit obviously matters, even down to that red jacket. And a matching message: more of the same so the Chinese economic juggernaut keeps on giving. After that demanding Mandarin-speaking predecessor, Beijing should be happy enough to meet a fellow apparatchik who just wants the existing machinery to keep ticking nicely.
 
Paradoxically, the fact that Gillard is not an international affairs wonk demonstrates some of Australia's foreign policy strengths. Most of the traditional policies are running on the established rails. Climate change is where she will have to build a new tradition, using the international dimension as one of her chief weapons.

Photo courtesy of the White House.

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