The abuse has been coming thick and fast at Julia Gillard for her Asian tour. “Frumpy” declared the talkback callers. “Out of her depth,” opined Andrew Bolt, although that appeared to worry him less than Tim Mathieson wearing a sports jacket and no tie. Miranda Devine thought the tie attack was a bit much, but suggested a more serious problem — that Ms Gillard wasn’t married. “Why,” wondered Devine, “when visiting conservative Islamic countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, did she decide to bring her de facto partner and flaunt a non-marital domestic situation.”

Apparently our Prime Minister should have left her partner at home to avoid causing “confusion and awkwardness”.

Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir should probably forget about visiting the region any time soon then.

At The Australian, Greg Sheridan offered no sartorial analysis and hadn’t spotted any “confusion and awkwardness” about the Prime Ministerial domestic arrangements, but wondered why she was bothering to visit the region at all. Doubtless if Gillard had failed to embark on an overseas trip she’d have caught hell for ignoring her foreign policy responsibilities. After all, she has publicly confessed that foreign policy is not her passion. And Labor’s foreign policy critics aren’t too fussed about consistency — recall how Kevin Rudd was pilloried for somehow being too close, and yet too antagonistic, to China?

Here’s an alternative take on Julia Gillard’s foreign policy potential. For a generation, we’ve had Prime Ministers who convinced themselves they were players on the world stage. Bob Hawke referred to himself “and other world leaders” and spoke of our ‘special relationship with China’, at least until 1989. Paul Keating tried to put APEC at the centre of world diplomacy and spoke repeatedly of Australia’s embrace of Asia. John Howard — who ignored APEC until it became a stage on which he could parade his dying Prime Ministership — so enthusiastically embraced the Bush Administration that he effectively outsourced Australian foreign policy (and our trade policy) to the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party.

And Kevin Rudd — well, you know about Kevin Rudd.

If Julia Gillard doesn’t see herself as a player on the world stage, if she isn’t obsessed with Australia “punching above its weight” in diplomacy but instead sees it primarily as an extension of domestic priorities, rather than as an opportunity to parade with “other world leaders”, then that might yet represent a refreshing change from a succession of Prime Ministers who struggled to distinguish between their own ego and Australian foreign policy.

Peter Fray

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