Summit season cometh, PM goeth
16 Nov 2015|

Summit season blossoms. Behold the annual display of the shift of Australian international policy—in symbolism and substance—to the personal care of the Prime Minister.

The structure and style of the way Australia does foreign policy at the top has been remade over 25 years. The PM’s role is at the centre of the change. No longer just presiding in Cabinet, the PM flies off to do the presidential lifting and carrying.

Summit season matters in the power and politics of Canberra. The season reflects and magnifies the presidential prerogatives grafted onto the prime ministership. This column has ruminated on the way the system has been cycling through PMs in double quick time.

The presidential pretensions can create headstrong captains making too many captain’s calls. Malcolm Bligh Turnbull understands deeply the danger of being Captain Bligh. As both the Labor and Liberal parties have shown, it takes only one caucus meeting to bring down an Oz president.

For all the benefits it offers, summit season is part of that presidential syndrome. Consider the negative impacts on some of our presidents after looking at the remaking of our foreign policy apparatus.

For the first 90 years of the Commonwealth, the PM’s task was to tend to the big bilaterals and the core alliance relationship. The PM still does the bilats, but now must service and exploit a set of new multilateral mechanisms. And do it face to face.

The arrival of the jet plane offered the means; and come the end of the Cold War, a rolling set of opportunities to create new institutions closer to Australia’s abiding interests. A quick stroll through the PMs tells the story.

For Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke, the big multilateral was the Commonwealth summit every two years. The one thing these blokes had to differentiate their calendar from that of Menzies was the chance to go to the annual South Pacific Forum. Like Menzies, they could sometimes time a pilgrimage to Washington to call by the UN General Assembly. And that was it.

Keating began the construction with his role in achieving the APEC summit. With huge amounts of pushing by Downer and Foreign Affairs, Howard achieved a big win for Australia by getting a seat at the East Asia Summit. Then Rudd helped to create the G20 Summit.

For Australia’s leader the annual opportunities—and the demands—had been transformed.

Malcolm Turnbull inherits the right to revel in the summit season’s rare air. Breathe deep at the bilateral summits and clamber atop the mountain ranges of the multilaterals.

The countdown on the crowded calendar to Christmas has commenced.

Turnbull Bilats: New Zealand, Indonesia, Germany, Japan.

Turnbull Multilats: G20 in Turkey, APEC in the Philippines, East Asia Summit in Malaysia, Commonwealth summit in Malta and the Paris climate change conference.

The recent rousing nature of Oz politics and the repeated presidential regicide has had an impact on the opportunity to do personal relations at the summit. The roll call of Australians at the G20 since 2009 reads: Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan, Julia Gillard (twice), Bob Carr, Tony Abbott, and now Malcolm Turnbull.

The summit season has had a part in recent Oz politics, and not always in a good way. There were myriad domestic reasons why Kevin Rudd’s dream run as a new PM soured so dramatically.

The key international turning point is the snowbound failure of the climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. An exhausted Rudd fumed about being ‘ratfucked’ by China in trying to get a deal on what he’d told Australians was ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time.’ Climate change certainly played a role in unmaking the first leadership terms of both Rudd and Turnbull.

The self-serving Gillard version is that after Copenhagen Rudd fell into a prolonged mental funk and his leadership wobbles became a plummet to the regicide in June 2010.

The sleep debt and travel exhaustion of summit season is a little-noted impost on the travelling PM. The tyranny of distance and time zones still matters.

As Turnbull breathes in the summit atmosphere, he might reflect that it’s the season when leaders size up their peers. Leaders matter and summits are where they matter to each other.

Barack Obama didn’t rate Tony Abbott, as was dramatically illustrated by the bird that the US President flipped his Australian host with that speech at the University of Queensland scorching Australia over climate policy.

Obama privately dismissed Abbott as a guy who didn’t get it. The US President talked up the extraordinary alliance and gave Abbott his obligatory Washington visit.

Yet one of the side stories of the Abbott years is how Australia’s access at all levels in the White House froze or fell. (Suddenly we had new sympathy for the Canadian troubles in Washington).

A small benefit of the summit season will be the chance for a quick reset with Obama as he zooms towards his final laps.

Turnbull will draw political benefits from the summits, not to mention policy opportunities. But prolonged, repeated exposure at summit altitudes can affect thinking, even of the most pragmatic.

John Howard said he was considering retiring as PM at the end of 2006 (Peter Costello scorned this claim; John Hewson always said Howard would only go out in a box). Still it was considered and such an orderly transition would have changed much in the political history that followed. Howard would have done a Menzies, the rare leader picking his exit point.

Why didn’t Howard go in 2006? John Howard is ever John Howard and, at least, he won’t die wondering.

One reason he stayed—perhaps a bigger factor than it should have been—was that Janette and John (stress Janette and John) would host the APEC summit in Sydney in September, 2007. Two months later in the federal election, Howard lost his seat and his government. Ah, the rare air of summit season.