Julia Gillard’s packed tour of Washington establishment this week included several speeches that won’t make a lot of sense to Australians.
The prime minister’s address to the US Congress was an affair of high importance to the Americans, with a ceremonial escort consisting of no less than all four leaders of the chambers and nearly a dozen of the most influential senators. Yet, the audience was filled almost entirely of junior aides and page attendants as seat fillers.
At an earlier address to the US Chamber of Commerce, Gillard minced no words over her support for economic stimulus packages to weather the GFC, clean energy and renewables. However, the talk was sponsored by Chevron and hosted by a lobbying organisation that bankrolled campaigns against all those policies.
At every public event on her schedule, Gillard was celebrated as a visionary, a trailblazer, and a woman of courage. In reply, she told America that Australia would be with them through thick and thin, just like it had during the first 60 years of the ANZUS treat.
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The historic speech to Congress honouring the 60th anniversary of the ANZUS treaty was highly sentimental and full of grand statements of America’s greatness and ideals. “Real mates talk straight,” Gillard insisted, and went on to praise America’s founding values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and the “extraordinary, immovable resolve” that America has shown decade after decade in defence of democracy.
It would be a little over the top for almost any other audience, even schmaltzy, but this was a chamber used to hearing State of the Union addresses, and Gillard wowed them like she was their own president: 14 interruptions in her speech due to applause, six standing ovations and a victory lap while signing autographs for the few actual representatives in attendance.
Gillard had practiced the speech over several nights, though there were no signs of understandable butterflies when she faced the media this morning — although her plate did go untouched.
Honouring the fallen, such as a New York 9/11 firefighter who bonded with Australians at joint training exercises some 13 years ago, would have itself been enough to win over the American lawmakers. When Gillard revealed that a helmet signed by that firefighter and owned by the Australians was being returned to his two sons, sitting in the gallery, the response was overwhelming.
Gillard’s own voice cracked with emotion in the final moments of the speech as she recalled as a girl watching America land on the moon and the promise of greatness this country held.
They were the same sentiments Obama had tried to convey, with almost an identical space-race reference, in his State of the Union earlier this year.
Gillard’s message to congress was the same as her message to business leaders: that America not withdraw into isolationism, that it “be bold”, and in particular reach out to South-East Asia. In return she gave them the global support they most wanted to hear: that Australia too condemned Iran for its nuclear program and that Israel and Palestine both have a right to exist in peace.
Australians would be right to ask what did this trip generate for them. They have come to expect some new treaty or major announcements following a prime ministerial trip to America, with Howard’s last trip as PM ending with a $6 billion purchase of two dozen Super Hornet aircraft. There is no such announceable for this visit. Gillard came with just a message and it was for America, not Australia.
Jobs and the looming national debt ceiling consume all the oxygen in Washington. Gillard’s addresses and meetings were a reminder that Australia not only beat the GFC, it pays off its debt between large infrastructure investment, and maintains a strong, growing economy.
While America is not used to taking advice from the dregs of the G20, it was a message that plays well with both the forward looking White House and the debt-worried Republican leadership.
Likewise, the Chamber of Commerce enjoyed the prime minister’s message on clean, secure energy, which meshed nicely with the energy industry’s PR campaign that it is part of the solution.
This was also an opportunity to let America know that Australia is willing to assist in the Middle East, particularly Egypt, with aid and electoral systems — but only Egypt itself wants the support.
Gillard also attempted to settle Australia’s position on a No Fly Zone over Libya, with a meeting just moments ago with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to convey her concerns about the growing loss of life. Pulling Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd into line, Gillard said the Security Council was the appropriate decision making body for military intervention — a body where Australia has no vote.