Once the plane door opens, reality is local
Australia is caught in a tug of war between China and USA. Photo: Dionne Gain
In diplomatic terms, Julia Gillard did some tough talking during her recent trip to Asia, which ends a bout of international travel.
In Phnom Penh she implicitly contradicted Beijing's position on the sensitive issue of rival claims in the South China Sea.
The timing is significant - the opening of diplomatic relations with China 40 years ago is about to be celebrated in an event to be held in the Great Hall of Parliament.
Australia has come a long way since Gough Whitlam was derided by the opposition as being ''played like a trout'' for the historic decision.
China is now Australia's main trading partner, but remains prickly about its sovereignty.
Gillard's firm position demonstrates the maturity of the relationship, where Australia has increased confidence in its dealings with its neighbours.
China asserts jurisdiction over almost the entire South China Sea and did not want the issue discussed at this week's East Asian Summit.
While Australia takes no position on the matter, the Prime Minister proposed a code of conduct for the rival claims and put her view directly to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
Gillard's statement goes against Beijing's view that the involvement of the United States and other non-ASEAN states in territorial disputes amounts to interference in China's affairs.
But Australia needs open sea lanes to trade - with China, for instance.
The areas in dispute cover sea lanes used for more than half the world's shipping, and major unexploited petroleum reserves.
''We are talking about an area of the world that our shipping needs to go through to take our goods to the world,'' Gillard said. China's stance had splintered a previous ASEAN meeting in July, when it failed to issue a final communique because of disagreement about pushing China towards a code of conduct.
Wen was attending his last major summit as Premier, so who would know if he took in Gillard's words or whether he made a note when the message was reinforced by Barack Obama?
When Parliament resumes on Monday for the last sitting week of the year, Gillard will give a report on her latest trip.
It will highlight her transformation from when she took over the prime ministership and readily conceded that foreign affairs was not her passion.
There was nothing surprising there. John Howard underwent the same change that is necessary for Australian prime ministers to effectively engage in global affairs. Later, he didn't object to being called the man of steel by George Bush. And he got used to wearing funny shirts at APEC summits.
Gillard gave what is effectively a preview of her Parliamentary speech when she used her post-summit press conference in Phnom Penh to talk about her year of international travel and achievements.
It's a long list that includes the war in Afghanistan, selling uranium to India, concluding a free trade agreement with Malaysia and strengthening ties with Indonesia.
She is also selling the merits of her white paper on Australia in the Asia Century, which unveils a blueprint for greater Australian engagement with Asia. It details the economic bounty that will flow from Asia's economic and social transformation.
By 2035 there will be 3 billion middle-class consumers in Asia.
As far as creating jobs in Australia, the ''opportunities are boundless'' said the Trade Minister, Craig Emerson, standing at Gillard's side.
Little of these positive developments will be noticed back home, however, or benefit Gillard.
The last week of Parliament is looming as a brutal affair, despite the round of Christmas parties.
Tony Abbott senses a turnaround in his fortunes, with Labor's version of the Pacific Solution collapsing under the sheer weight of numbers.
None of the threats of harsh treatment have stopped the boats. The Coalition reckons more asylum seekers have arrived by boat since Labor came to power in 2007 than the population of Alice Springs.
While Abbott pillories Labor for being ''too weak'', the government is also being attacked for the ''cruelty'' of conditions on Nauru.
Abbott has campaigned strongly on Labor's refusal to embrace all of the elements of the Howard government's Pacific Solution, such as temporary protection visas.
But now Labor is suffering the humiliation of conceding he is almost right by adopting bridging visas for refugees processed offshore.
It will leave the people in a poverty-stricken legal limbo for five years or longer, similar to the situation of those granted temporary protection visas by the Howard government.
At this week's Cabinet meeting, ministers have to face the reality that the experiment has failed.
But, what else can they do?
The recommendations from Gillard's hand-picked expert panel on asylum seekers said its suite of recommendations would dissuade desperate people from making the dangerous trip. The government's stated objective was to stop the boats, to stop the drownings. But the flow of boats has increased, markedly since the Prime Minister got tough.
Gillard won't lose any sleep over leaky tents on Nauru - it's supposed to be a deterrent. Previously she sent a government video crew to capture the primitive conditions and broadcast this reality to those considering paying the people smugglers.
Labor's effective surrender on this issue is just what Abbott needs as a springboard for a ferocious campaign in the final week of Parliament. He will go at it as hard as he usually does.
It appears his deputy, Julie Bishop, will carry the campaign against Gillard in the row on the so-called ''slush fund'' of so many years ago.
The Prime Minister has already conceded she was deceived by her former boyfriend and no evidence has been found of wrongdoing by her. Here Abbott needs to be careful not to overreach.
The Coalition may decide that the best strategy is a whispering campaign leading up to next year's election. Abbott will hope for it to gain momentum next year, hoping Labor won't go to an early election, even if the budget surplus is a confirmed failure. Going to the people early would necessitate a subsequent election for the Senate, and spark a public backlash.
While the public opinion polls show the gap between the two major parties is closing, internal Labor Party polling leaked to Fairfax Media this week shows NSW has become federal Labor's worst black spot.
A source familiar with the polling says the key issues identified are lack of trust and asylum seekers, with the latter badly affecting seats in western Sydney - some of which are held by ministers.
As Labor MPs head back to Canberra the poll is sobering news for the globe-trotting Prime Minister and an unwelcome reminder of the maxim that all politics is local.
Ross Peake is Political Editor