Thursday, 7 October 2010
Arguably the key question in the Gillard-Abbott spat about his skipping a trip to see the troops in Afghanistan is not why he did. Those British Tories can be an intimidating lot and it is wise to be in top form. Especially if they remind him that they were able to at least cobble together a Coalition from a party to the left of UK Labour whereas he couldn’t even cobble one together with those from his own side. Anyway, if he did drop in on the troops, a soldier might ask him if more should be sent there, and by the sounds of it, Abbott’s not that sure.
No, surely the more interesting question of all of this is why did Gillard invite him? A visit to the troops is precisely the sort of photo ops that Prime Ministers usually grab with both hands. Being photographed with troops gives authority and all the benefits of power that only Prime Ministers can have. Sharing such limelight with an opposition leader, especially on her first visit as PM, seems like a strange act of generosity.
It became a bit clearer though when she moved on to Brussels and was interviewed on The 7.30 Report on Tuesday night. Kerry O’Brien asked what would have been a rather patronising question to any Prime Minister of Australia, let alone as smart as Gillard, but incredibly, was taken seriously:
KERRY O’BRIEN: This is your first overseas trip as Prime Minister. There must be something of a sharp
learning curve in all this for you. All domestic portfolios until now; suddenly you’re meeting 11 world leaders in a day. Have you found your comfort zone yet?
JULIA GILLARD: Oh, look, Kerry, I’m obviously working my way through. Kerry, I’m just going to be really upfront about this: foreign policy is not my passion. It’s not what I’ve spent my life doing. You know, I came into politics predominantly to make a difference to opportunity questions, particularly make a difference in education. So, yes, if I had a choice I’d probably more be in a school watching kids learn to read in Australia than here in Brussels at international meetings. That’s what took me into politics, that kind of education work. But obviously in this role I will serve as Prime Minister doing the full job, and the full job includes coming to places like Brussels to be a feisty advocate for Australia’s national interest. And that’s what I will do. It’s what I’m doing here.
Talking about her international role as head of government in Australia as though it was part of the dross of doing the “full job”, and something she needs to “work through” is strange enough. Doing it about meetings in Brussels of which a major purpose was to discuss Australia’s current commitment in what is proving a bloody military conflict is stranger still. Abbott would rather be in Birmingham talking to English Tories, Gillard would rather be home listening to kids reading. Are we at war in Afghanistan or not?
Greg Sheridan thinks that Gillard is distancing herself from Rudd just as Howard was from Keating. There is a point in this but a couple of things to note. Howard did start off like that, preferring to focus on his domestic programme. When it became clear he didn’t really have much of one, he looked overseas to stop the drift, playing games in East Timor and then finally hitching his caboose to Bush’s War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq.
The problem of authority for our political class is not discussed very much in polite circles of Australian political commentary, let alone the idea of looking for it overseas. But it has been a fact of political life since Federation and especially now when there is so little domestic program to hang a hat on. The good thing about mucking about overseas is that you can stuff up and no one seems to know, nor mind, if you do – as long as you stay very close to a major power while you do it.
It was why no matter how disastrously wrong Iraq went, it was never a political problem for Howard until the US began to think so too, something Howard got so wrong when he made his jibe about the terrorists wanting an Obama win. Since then the political problem in Australia is how to adapt to the loss of direction from the US, post-Iraq.
Rudd’s solution was to latch on to an international agenda that arose in the vacuum and even presented the US as a problem, climate change. The problem was that although the US under Obama tried to tag along, they could never give it direction and no one else could either, and after Copenhagen Rudd was left with nothing.
This is the second point about Gillard’s repeating Howard’s reaction to Keating. Rudd going overseas was not seen as a political problem. It was almost the opposite; he lost the reason to after Copenhagen. For the last six months he pretty well never travelled aboard at all and it didn’t do him a bit of good. Backing away from what had been the greatest moral challenge left Rudd with no authority over the public, and so over the party bosses that had hated him all along.
As she has done with the minority government, Gillard has made a virtue of a necessity and claimed that she doesn’t want to be overseas anyway, and has no appetite for even taking political advantage of Afghanistan, basically because there is none to be had. In fact, if anything she would rather share the blame.
Will this work? It shouldn’t, but there is the unknown of what happens to the party even more incapable of living without US leadership than the ALP, the Liberals. The press are not really making much of this, but Abbott’s gaffe over Afghanistan is probably a major blow to his leadership inside the party. Equivocation over a US led military conflict is unheard of with the Liberals and even Abbott’s recent backing away from building up presence there is not good news. Not because Afghanistan is a vote winner, far from it, but because for the Liberals, fretting about a brand that Abbott was supposed to address, clinging close to what ever military action the US is up to is about all that is left.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 7 October 2010.Filed under International relations