The Prime Minister might have copped plenty of stick over the length and itinerary of his World Discovery Tour but it is clear that when Rudd plays to his strength, he is pretty impressive. Despite being the new kid on the international block, he hasn’t had to prove himself – he is already known and respected in foreign policy circles, and American audiences and leaders have been interested in what he has to say, especially about China.

John who, they might wonder.

Despite this, Andrew Robb has managed to score points off the Government. Robb looked an unlikely choice as shadow Foreign Minister. Some say he would’ve been better off shadowing John Faulkner, given his extensive backroom experience. And he’s not exactly aggressive in Parliament – rather more eminence grise than attack dog. But he has been talking about the Government’s relationship with Japan for months – issuing press releases, mentioning it in speeches, even giving rather lonely Sunday press conferences in Canberra on it.

And as a reward for his diligence, the issue finally took off last week, boosted by the Government’s peculiar neglect in not arranging even an introductory phone call between Rudd and his Japanese counterpart. Now it has forced Rudd to arrange an earlier trip to Japan, although the Prime Minister was assuring journalists in Washington this morning that the visit had been being worked on for months.

Robb was also quick – although one sees the experienced hand of Alexander Downer in this – to note that a push for a UN Security Council seat might require Australia to drop its criticism of human rights abuses in order to avoid offending potential UN votes.

Coupled with his pursuit of the AustChina affair, Robb gets the nod as the Opposition’s star performer so far. He has worked out that Rudd is potentially vulnerable not on foreign policy itself, but on the intersection between foreign and domestic policy. He knows that punters are aware of Rudd’s close connections with China, and has played on that to suggest that his sinophilia isn’t entirely a good thing.

Stephen Smith hasn’t helped much, it must be said. While Smith is a type of Dean Rusk figure – the Secretary of State Kennedy had because he wanted to be his own Secretary of State – he has no foreign affairs background apart from a brief stint as Trade spokesman in the 1990s. That it fell to the Japanese to point out that Smith (and Peter Garrett) had visited Japan in January, and that from its point of view there was no issue in the relationship, suggested Smith and his office weren’t awake to how successfully Robb and Nelson had pushed the snubbing of Japan as a faux-issue.

Crikey understands that Smith and his staff are, even more than other ministerial offices, finding Government challenging, particularly given the sheer volume of paper coming through DFAT. Nevertheless someone should keep a weather eye on how foreign policy is playing domestically, otherwise Andrew Robb will continue to score points off what should be the Government’s strong suit.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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