Gillard on the go is being undersold

Gillard on the go is being undersold

Julia Gillard will spend about 55 hours in the air and 18 on the ground just to attend the NATO summit in Lisbon. She arrives home this morning from a week overseas and heads off again on Thursday.

It will be the Prime Minister's fifth international gathering in six weeks, following on from the Asia-Europe Meeting in Belgium, the East Asia Summit in Vietnam, the G20 in South Korea last week, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Japan at the weekend.

Gillard thought twice before committing to NATO but decided to go given it will be a pivotal gathering to discuss the withdrawal strategy from Afghanistan.

For somebody who said in Belgium that she did not have a passion for foreign affairs, she is adapting quickly.

Over the past week she has been acutely aware of how she is being perceived at home and there has been a sensitivity within her delegation to domestic criticism that she is something of a stumblebum abroad.


Certainly there are few votes in foreign affairs; only a downside insofar as you are punished for messing up.

She was chipped for making intemperate remarks about banks to an international business summit in Seoul. While this may have been a mistake, three banks did spit in her face by increasing rates last week while she was abroad arguing they be exempted from new rules and regulations to prevent another global financial crisis.

By and large her mistakes abroad have been few and, her supporters argue, her achievements undersold.

One senior official urged consideration of what Gillard had done in foreign affairs in the less than six months she has been Prime Minister. He rattled off significant bilateral discussions already held with well over a dozen leaders of nations including the US, Britain, China, Germany, Indonesia, France, Russia, Canada and Japan.

She has visited Afghanistan, can hold a conversation on the war as well as anybody, and her speech to Parliament was more unambiguous than anything the former prime ministers John Howard or Kevin Rudd ever managed.

One source familiar with Gillard's bilateral meeting with US President Barack Obama on Saturday said the US officials noted afterwards that Gillard conversed across topics ranging from China, regional architecture, free trade, climate change and war ''without a single note in front of her''.

The most undersold achievement thus far was the deal struck with Indonesia two weeks ago. The $500 million for education was more than a goodwill gesture. It will build 2000 new schools and upgrade the curriculum of another 1500 Islamic schools, giving their students a better education in the sciences, history and humanities, with less focus on the Koran. Most significant was the establishment of an economic relationship with Indonesia, a glaring omission in an otherwise strong and important partnership. If there has been a problem, it has been selling the message.

Gillard, like most prime ministers, did not come to the job as a creature of foreign affairs. The two notable exceptions were Gough Whitlam and Rudd and they were also two of the nation's shortest-serving prime ministers.

''She isn't going to become a foreign policy junkie who sees life in those terms,'' said the official.

Within the bureaucracy, Gillard is being likened to Howard and Bob Hawke. Both started the job with a strong domestic focus and used their sound negotiating skills in the foreign arena.

Gillard alluded to this trait when asked about the criticism back home. ''I like dealing with people and whether you're dealing with leaders of the G20, whether you're dealing with leaders here at APEC, whether you're at home talking to Australians about what's on their mind, people are people and if you can get them talking and work issues through you can normally find a good place, a good path.''

The foreign affairs focus of Gillard is higher than normal because of the competitive tensions and inevitable comparisons with Rudd, now her Foreign Affairs Minister. Tongues flapped at the weekend when Rudd spoke at length on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and described Gillard's performance abroad as ''appropriate and professional''.

The Rudd-Gillard thing risks being overinterpreted because Rudd, after all, is the Foreign Affairs Minister and must be allowed to operate as one. Gillard is not obsessed by Rudd's shadow and can be quite magnanimous towards him. Upon arrival in Seoul, for example, she said Rudd deserved much credit for the G20's swift action to confront the global financial crisis.

A Gillard intimate said the focus on ''Julia versus Kevin'' in foreign affairs ''would have some significance if she wasn't comfortable in her own skin, if it was messing with her head''.

''Gillard in no way is intellectually or emotionally benchmarking herself against Kevin. She's just doing what she does to the best of her abilities.''

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