An independent foreign policy
The history of Australia's foreign policy can be divided into two broad eras: the period between federation and the Second World War when it essentially allowed Britain to dictate its diplomacy; and the period afterwards when it slavishly followed America's lead. Not for Australia the feisty independent-mindedness of New Zealand, which pulled its troops out of Vietnam in the early 1970s and blocked American warships from using its harbours in the 1980s, having declared itself a nuclear-free zone.
No, Australia has put a premium on diplomatic mateship with two longstanding allies. Prior to World War II, the then Attorney General and later Prime Minister Robert Menzies said it would be "suicidal" to "formulate our foreign policy independently of what may be the foreign policy of Great Britain". Much of that same thinking survives today, with the US replacing the UK. Indeed, ever since signing the ANZUS treaty in 1951, when Australia decided that America was the guarantor of its regional security, it has rarely taken a diplomatic position at odds with Washington.
Australia's diplomatic stance towards Libya is a case in point. Initially, Julia Gillard showed no enthusiasm for a no-fly zone, but then reversed. The only thing that changed was that Barack Obama came out unambiguously in favour of firmer action against Colonel Gaddafi. If there is such a thing as a Gillard Doctrine, it is to basically agree with Washington. Indeed, there is something very Pavlovian about all this. Less the boxing kangaroo and more the poodle.
For those who have hoped for a more independent foreign policy, the new foreign affairs minister, Kevin Rudd, is showing real promise. He was an early and enthusiastic advocate of the Libyan no-fly zone. He was quick to call on Japan to provide urgent briefings on the radiation threat after the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Most controversially of all, he mounted a strong defence of Julian Assange's legal rights, and pointed out that America was responsible for the leak of 250,000 diplomatic cables.
The problem is that Kevin Rudd's foreign policy is also independent of Julia Gillard. As we recently noted in Ruddology, one of the prime minister's aides recently told the Sydney Morning Herald he was "out of control".
Earlier this month, Rudd demonstrated his continued diplomatic pulling power by hosting ambassadors, high commissioners and senior diplomats from 70 countries in Brisbane to show that Queensland was still open for business. But it seemed something of a personal showcase as well, and signalled that he regards foreign affairs as something of a personal fiefdom. This week a poll suggested more Australians would prefer Kevin Rudd as prime minister than Julia Gillard, which gives him more of a mental edge. He clearly thinks he is much cleverer than Julia Gillard, and successive polls have shown that he is more popular as well.
This week Julia Gillard has the chance to assert herself more forcefully in the foreign realm, with a North Asian tour of Japan, South Korea and China - before jetting off to Britain for the royal wedding. But as she noted on her first international trip as prime minister, in a quote that has come back to haunt her, she has no passion for foreign affairs.
Certainly, Kevin Rudd has become that genuine rarity: an Australian foreign affairs minister who clearly believes that he is punching well below his weight.