Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 01:48 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 01:48 | SYDNEY

Summits here, there and everywhere


Graeme Dobell

25 October 2011 14:46

For Julia Gillard, these should be the best of times. The median wealth of Australians is the highest in the world and the World Bank thinks Australian companies have a pretty easy time of it, too. With everything rosy at home, the Prime Minister should be embarking on an extraordinary series of multilateral events that will add a rainbow of international lustre to her leadership.

Oh, and she is currently hosting a visit by Queen, while the US president comes next month. Great days, indeed. The problem for the Gillard Government is that this version of Oz reality would draw derisory laughter in any bar in the land. The prime minister is crashing in the polls and will give a mighty sigh of relief if she is still leading the country when she sits down for Christmas lunch.

A leader who is not long past her first anniversary in office could be excused for asking why everything has gone so wrong, so fast. Running a minority government means the ability to command the day, yet control of the narrative is constantly under threat. Gillard's capacity to engage Australians seems deeply damaged; if she is going to rebuild, the next few weeks dancing across the international stage are the place to start. The pictures alone will be wonderful. Substance will be a bonus.

Consider that the Commonwealth summit in Perth this week is to be followed next month by the G20 in France, APEC in Hawaii and the East Asia Summit.

There will be some irony in the political blessing Barack Obama offers Gillard when he touches down in Oz. If Obama hadn't cancelled his planned visit last year, the timing of the presidential visit might have stayed the hand of the plotters who cut down Kevin Rudd (although the imminent arrival of George Bush Snr didn't stop Keating from toppling Hawke, so presidential magic has its limits).

By the time Gillard adjusts her sights for Labor's national conference in December, she will need some evidence that she has started to change the political storyline. December is the time when Labor has a habit of regicide, to clear the decks and install a new captain for the new year (knifing Kevin in winter was just one of the timing problems with last year's coup). Gillard has to start her rebuild from here, and the slew of summits would offer any leader a chance to reshape the national conversation.

Hosting the Commonwealth is the gentle place to begin. The visit by the Queen and the Commonwealth summit are a reminder of much that created Australia. Yet Australia's interests will be less engaged by what is discussed in Perth than what will follow at the G20, APEC and the EAS. It is a mark of Australian diplomatic success in recent decades that the Commonwealth is no longer the big international event for the prime minister, as it was all the way through till the 1980s. 

Malcolm Fraser was probably the last prime minister who truly valued the Commonwealth as a major instrument of Australian foreign policy. Even Fraser, though, sought to create a new regional version of the Commonwealth to serve Australia's aims in the Asia Pacific. The Fraser effort stands in a long Australian tradition of trying to find uses for the Commonwealth — the 'wither or whither' debate that has run for decades.

The Commonwealth probably doesn't have much to offer Gillard in pondering the import of the Asian Century. Indeed, it's ironic that the prime minister will not be welcoming the prime minister of India to Perth, but is due to see him at the G20 and the EAS. The creation of the modern Commonwealth, after all, was a response to the creation (independence) of modern India.

One thing that will mark the Perth summit as a different meeting of minds to those at the EAS and APEC will be the emphasis on democratic values, or the British sales pitch about the Commonwealth as the soft power network of the future.

It's most unlikely that the EAS would ever consider an Eminent Persons Group report calling for the creation of a Commissioner for Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights. If the Commonwealth is to add real value on a crowded international stage, it is the democratic software it enshrines, built into its DNA through language, law and legislature.

For an Australia pondering what influence it can have on the software of the new Asia Pacific system, that democratic emphasis will stand in novel contrast to some of the summits next month.