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Heavyweight economics, lightweight diplomacy

news | 17:46 UK time, Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Australian dollar soared to near parity with the US greenback this week, providing yet more proof, as if any more were needed, of the comparative strength of the Australian economy, the much-envied "wonder from down under."

Overnight on Thursday the dollar reached 99.18 cents, its highest level since 1983, when the currency was first floated.

"From Pacific Peso to Parity." The headline writers are waiting with their fingers on the ENTER key.

Rarely has Australia packed more of an economic punch, which makes it all the more ironic that new Prime Minister Julia Gillard should imply this week that, on the diplomatic front at least, she now intends to land much softer blows.

After visiting Australian diggers in Afghanistan and talking up Australia's World Cup bid with the Fifa chief Sepp Blatter in Zurich, she made her international debut in Brussels at the Asia-Europe meeting.

However, it was not much of a coming-out. Instead, she gave the strong impression of wanting to be back home.

In an interview with ABC television, "by satellite" no less as presenter Kerry O'Brien pointed out, Julia Gillard had this to say of her first trip abroad as PM:

"Kerry, I'm just going to be really upfront about this: foreign policy is not my passion. It's not what I've spent my life doing. You know, I came into politics predominantly to make a difference to opportunity questions, particularly make a difference in education.

"So, yes, if I had a choice I'd probably more be in a school watching kids learn to read in Australia than here in Brussels at international meetings."

It says a lot about the leaden parochialism of Australian politics right now that this statement is being talked of in some circles as something of a political masterstroke.

It gives her a kind of undiplomatic immunity, I suppose you could call it, for never can she be accused, as Kevin '747' Rudd so often was, of being more interested in Beijing and Washington than Broken Hill and Wollongong.

The trip to Brussels also came with a photo-opportunity, presumably aimed at Middle Australia, and a classic example of her Bungalow Politics that we have spoken of before. Samantha Maiden of The Australian takes up the story. "In a masterful bogan touch, the traveling media were invited yesterday to photograph her visiting a Brussels hot chip van to sample the local delicacy - fries and mayonnaise."

Arguably, one of Kevin Rudd's great achievements was to institutionalise Australia's increased diplomatic heft, not least by helping to elevate the role of the G20. Both John Howard and Kevin Rudd also nurtured close ties with the US presidents of the day. Clearly, Julia Gillard will be more of a stay-at-home prime minister.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott, who was in Britain last week for the Conservative party conference, has also said that Australian prime ministers who spend too much time abroad have a "ticket on themselves."

Last weekend he even turned down a trip to Afghanistan to meet the diggers, explaining, bizarrely, that it would give him "jet lag" when he arrived in Britain. This from the Iron Man Triathlete.

The dollar may be close to parity. But on the international stage, the new Australian prime minister and the leader of the opposition appear to have brought about their own devaluation.


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