Julia Gillard’s approach to foreign policy must be set beside that of Kevin Rudd. Indeed, Gillard’s place in history will be inextricably intertwined with Rudd on almost every level. The vote on September 7 will do much to define the final judgement on the terms of an internal party rivalry that was as toxic as anything Canberra has seen in generations—with as many acts as those played out by Howard and Peacock and with all the intense bitterness of Hawke and Keating.
Initially, Gillard as leader spoke with Rudd’s voice, especially as he was her Foreign Minister. Gradually over her term Gillard put down her own markers, such as the Asian Century White Paper. Indeed, one of the reasons Gillard created the White Paper was because it didn’t evoke the rhythms of Ruddism.
Rudd’s performance was much stronger on multilateral issues, while Gillard’s ability was more at the bilateral level. The foreign affairs efforts of Rudd Mk I were considerable, but the missteps were also notable for a leader who came to the top job with so much foreign policy experience. Rudd’s effort to make the G20 the preeminent international economic body was his finest achievement; his determination to bid for a seat on the UN Security Council ended in triumph, although it was Gillard who carried the torch across the line.
Along with that Security Council win, a UN issue inflicted a defeat on Gillard when she was rolled by her own Cabinet over the decision on Australia’s vote on the status of Palestine. The new Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, and an old Foreign Minister in Gareth Evans persuaded Caucus and Cabinet to overturn Gillard’s preference for Australia and to stand with the US and Israel in the General Assembly vote on Palestine.
Rudd stabilised and maintained the alliance with the US at the same time as he took Australian troops out of the war in Iraq. That’s high level alliance management. Gillard, though, has taken the alliance to another level and helped swing it decisively towards Australia’s regional interests. Rudd got out of Iraq, Gillard got the US Marines into northern Australia. For good or ill in Afghanistan, Gillard stuck staunchly to the policy stance created by Howard and Rudd. That consistency with her predecessors on Afghanistan clearly caused Gillard plenty of personal pain, but she made the policy her own. It may end up weighing on the negative side of her legacy.
In relations with India and China, Gillard has the stronger record. In talking to Beijing, she benefited from not being Rudd. The Rudd Mk I relationship with China was a strikingly rough ride. On the roughness of that period, I cite the view of the Fairfax Beijing correspondent John Garnaut that Rudd’s 2009 White Paper ‘exploded like a bomb beneath the China relationship’ and Garnaut’s judgement that after Canberra’s frank assessment of Chinese military growth, ‘bilateral relations plunged to the lowest point since the Tiananmen massacres of 1989’.
If you doubt this assessment, read with only a slightly questioning eye the terms of the 2009 Australia–China Joint Statement. The protestations of future harmony are built on a painful recent past. At the time, I described the statement as the terms of a ceasefire—perhaps even an armistice between Rudd and Beijing. Being the ‘non-Rudd’ allowed Gillard to play a steady role with China. A bunch of Beijing apparatchiks recognised another accomplished apparatchik from Canberra and normal business got done. Gillard’s Defence Paper was certainly seen in this non-Rudd light.
With New Delhi, being the non-Rudd enabled Gillard to change the tone of the relationship. She decided to overturn Labor’s refusal to sell uranium to India. She made the switch without even talking to her then Foreign Minister, Mr K.Rudd. This was an Australian nod or even bow to India’s status. Gillard’s decision has made it easier for Canberra to ruminate on what it must try to achieve with India, and allowed Gillard’s Defence White Paper to give great prominence to the ‘new strategic construct’ of the Indo-Pacific.
If any official signpost from Gillard’s term persists, it will be the 2012 White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century rather than this year’s Defence White Paper. The spending programs in the Asian Century statement are already rusting away. What will stand will be the embrace of Asia’s rise as the defining feature of the 21st century and its discussion of the profound implications for Australia. History’s rendering of Gillard will give more prominence to the significance of the Asian Century White Paper as a statement of understanding and belonging than as a policy prescription.
Many future historians will feel a need to use that photograph of Gillard in the Oval Office handballing an Oz Rules football to President Obama. And the historians can quote a version of Gillard’s remark to Obama that he might be the first black man to lead the US, but she was a woman, unmarried and childless. Obama and Gillard achieved a rapport that had a similar policy basis as that between Bush and Howard, but with a starkly different set of personal perspectives.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image by Official White House Photographer Pete Souza, courtesy of the White House blog.