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How An Aussie PM Got Schooled In Washington, D.C. – Analysis


By Joss Douglas

On March 7, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard met with President Barack Obama during her first visit to Washington since she assumed the country’s leadership position in June 2010. Gillard had a full agenda to attend to in Washington during her whirlwind five days in town, including addressing a joint meeting of Congress and meetings with President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and US Trade Representative Ron Kirk. For Gillard—Australia’s first-ever female prime minister—the Washington sojourn afforded the Labor Party leader an important opportunity to augment her floundering approval rating down under. A March 4 Newspoll survey, released on the first day of Gillard’s visit to the U.S., showed her approval rating was a meager 30 percent—the lowest score of any sitting prime minister since such polls began in 1985. Polling also ironically indicated that a majority would have preferred her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, to lead the Labor Party. Gillard’s plummet in popularity in 2011 is seen as an unfortunate direct upshot of her highly polarizing pro-environment policy, and her government’s climate change-sensitive announcement late last month of a proposed carbon tax that would enter into effect on July 1, 2012.

Although politicians in both Washington and Canberra routinely downplay the significance of political polling, the reality is that polls have normally foreshadowed election results in Australia. For that reason, poor approval ratings have claimed as many political scalps in Canberra as they have in Washington. Gillard herself came to the post of prime minister in a cloak and dagger fashion following Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s fall from grace. Rudd suffered poor polling results for his polemical trades, and Gillard faces similar abysmal approval ratings in Australia. The question has been raised as to how well Prime Minister Gillard compared in Washington against the leader of the free world, and how it affected her approval rating back home.

Safety First: A Diplomatically Cautious Expedition

To begin with, Gillard did not ascend to the post of prime minister, but weaseled her way into office after pulling off a political coup against Rudd, who stayed on as her foreign minister.

While Gillard’s absence from Australia may have helped her party’s prospects back in Australia, her performance in the U.S. was underwhelming to say the least, or as U.S.-Australian relations expert Professor Hugh White put it: “lightweight”. The chief reason for this is that while the climate change debate continues to rage in Australia and elsewhere in the world, Gillard refrained from any substantive discussion on the issue in Washington.

Her conversations with President Obama were ‘routine’ and somewhat superficial, while her speech to Congress was akin to a rhetorical exercise. 2011 marks the 60th anniversary of Australia’s formal alliance with the U.S., and the dominant theme of Gillard’s talks with U.S. dignitaries emphasized the importance of this relationship both now and in the future. In her public exchanges with President Obama, Gillard explained that she viewed the relationship as “sixty years young,” while Obama responded in kind with an affirmation that the United States “has no stronger ally than Australia.” Personally, Obama has fond memories of his boyhood visit to Australia, and attended four years of school in Australia’s ‘near north’ neighbor, Indonesia.

In the context of modern international affairs, the solidarity between the two nations acknowledged by Obama and Gillard revolves heavily around economic and military partnerships. Contrary to what many Americans might know on the subject, Australia up to now has been the largest non-NATO supporter of military engagements in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Australian troops will remain with coalition forces in Afghanistan until 2014. Recently, Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith encouraged a greater presence of U.S. troops in Australia as part of the countries’ collective Asia-Pacific defense strategy.


Economically, Australia and the U.S. share an important trade relationship. The United States is Australia’s fifth largest merchandise export market and its number one client for services. The U.S. is Australia’s largest import source for services, the second largest import customer for merchandise, and the most important foreign investor in Australia. During their discussions, both leaders emphasized the importance of the Australia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA), which entered into force on January 1, 2005. Australia and the United States share a desire for enhanced global trade liberalization, and during their just-concluded talks, both Obama and Gillard expressed a mutual commitment to the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP). According to Professor Geoffrey Garrett, founding CEO of the U.S. Studies Centre at Sydney University, the Asia Pacific region will be the center-point of U.S. economic policy in the coming years, meaning that closer cooperation between the U.S. and Australia is both logical and inevitable.

Despite the importance of Gillard’s Washington agenda of economic and military discussions, it must be said that these have lingered on relatively “safe” topics, as they have been the subject of conversation between Australian and American leaders for decades. Today, a number of new and challenging social and environmental issues dominate the floors of the Australian Parliament and the U.S. Congress. In much of the international community (in both the developed and developing worlds), climate change is an issue that consumes a disproportionate amount of energy from more and more politicians, journalists and academics alike. Climate change has evolved over the past three decades from theory to incontrovertible science, attracting further attention throughout the globe as well as increased legal traction in the form of carbon tax schemes. Sadly, however, climate change does not seem to be an urgent issue for each country’s electorate—it simply is not a bombshell issue.

In anticipation of Gillard’s visit to the U.S., many concerned citizens of Australia as well as American enthusiasts looked forward to environmental issues receiving the due attention they deserve, particularly in light of the controversy in Canberra surrounding Gillard’s well-vetted proposed carbon tax. While Gillard had time to play “footy” (Australian Rules Football) in the Oval Office with the president and postulated about the merits of Vegemite (Australia’s iconic yeast spread), Gillard failed to tackle the issue of encouraging a carbon tax in the U.S. The cardinal problem with failing to push the president on this issue is that pricing carbon output requires a global effort, and without the support of the U.S. the challenge remains ever more difficult, if not impossible. It is not surprising that the U.S. and Australia should share a particular interest in working together to reach climate change solutions. This is because the two nations are, at present, the highest emitters of CO2 per capita in the world. And yet, during her recent visit Gillard made little effort to brief the president on the framework surrounding Australia’s proposed carbon tax. Perhaps there was a mutual understanding that the topic was better left untouched, considering the extreme resistance Obama faced at home on the issue in 2010. However, given the current salience of the carbon issue in Australia, the onus was on Gillard to steer the talks towards climate change, and she failed to do so.

The Hemispheric Context

In this regard, Gillard’s visit with Obama was a disappointment for both Australia and the entire Western Hemisphere. Latin America is home to several large carbon emitters such as Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, but there is a building awareness in the region of the need for clean energy. In Costa Rica, where a carbon tax has been in place since 1997, leaders in San José have been petitioning Washington to take real action on climate change for years. The Costa Rican tax on carbon is set at 3.5 per cent of the market value of fossil fuels. The revenue raised goes into a national forest fund, which pays indigenous communities to protect the forests around them. Further south, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has been campaigning robustly since late 2010 among OPEC nations for a global oil sales tax to help curb carbon emissions. Correa, who played a prominent role in both the Copenhagen and Cancún UN climate change conferences, also has assumed a leadership role among the Bolivian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA) nations in committing to the issue of climate change.

Latin America boasted some of the harshest critics of the 2009 Copenhagen Accords, such as Cuba and Bolivia, who argued that developing countries were essentially ignored in the debates. The region has been extremely vocal, primarily through the OAS, in promoting climate change solutions such as Emissions Trading Schemes and measures to curb deforestation. The region has a lot at stake. Scientists predict that the melting of the Andean glaciers, for instance, will have a devastating impact on Latin America’s agricultural sector. According to the World Bank, the world’s total agricultural production could decrease by up to 15 percent because of climate change, and that figure may reach even higher levels in Latin America. A report released by the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) in December last year revealed that by 2050, ocean surface temperature increases will result in significant coral bleaching in the Caribbean. The report also pointed out vital signs of climate change that are already visible in the region. For example, the number of Latin American citizens affected by extreme weather events (caused by a global increase in CO2 emissions) was 5 million in the 1970s, compared with 40 million over the last decade. This has come at a cost, the UNEP estimates, of more than USD 40 billion.

Thus, it goes without saying that Obama and Gillard’s failure to engage in any meaningful dialogue on climate change would have surely unsettled many countries in the region, such as Costa Rica, that understand the importance of multilateral cooperation on the issue. At the same time, it is understandable that the U.S. and Australia would be looking for an excuse to opt out from agreements that result in fiscal costs. This lack of action would also have disappointed leaders of Latin America’s poorest nations, which, via the “Green Climate Fund,” established by the Copenhagen Accord, stand to receive significant financial support as a result of a global carbon pricing scheme.

Gillard’s Scorecard

While her broad “Aussie” accent may have humored many in Washington and generated a good deal of jocose comments, Gillard, to be sure, is a woman with an outstanding resumé. At 50 years of age, Gillard is a veteran of Australian politics, having been in the House of Representatives since 1998 and, previously, was regarded as a renowned industrial relations lawyer. Gillard’s confidence and competence in international affairs has been a flattering talking point since she came to power last year. In 2010, Gillard famously (but perhaps not wisely) admitted that her passion does not necessarily lie in foreign affairs, explaining that she would much prefer “being in an Australian classroom” reading to a group of schoolchildren. Improving Australia’s educational standards has always been a pressing issue for Gillard. Her statement on her priorities probably did not come as a surprise to anyone who knew her political strengths, but it underscored the prime minister’s own lack of sophistication about the importance of achieving global solutions in a world that is more interconnected than ever before.

The uncomfortable truth for Gillard is that she campaigned in 2010 on a promise not to introduce a carbon tax, and now she is doing just that. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was elected in 2007 on a policy platform that included “clean-energy” as a top priority, ended up falling on his own sword when it came to actually implementing climate change policy. Following the unpopular proposal of an emissions trading scheme that flopped, Rudd faced poor opinion polls (though not as poor as Gillard is now experiencing) and was forced from office by Gillard in an overnight, if not uncompromising, in-house attack. Australians literally awoke to a new prime minister on June 24, 2010, marking the first time an incumbent prime minister had been forced from their post by their own party in Australian political history. While President Obama observed, “from a distance at least, she [Gillard] is doing an outstanding job,” Gillard has yet to experience the trust and respect that was shared between Rudd and Obama. While Gillard declared Australia and the United States to be “great mates” during her talks in Washington, the fact remains that Barack and Rudd were—on a personal level—great friends, and they needed no flowery rhetoric to prove it. On the day of Australia’s power handover on June 24, 2010, it was interesting to note that President Obama first called Rudd to offer his condolences before calling Gillard to congratulate her on her victory.

While many saw Gillard as being out of her league in Washington, the trip was probably everything the prime minister wanted and more. President Obama extended the full nine yards of regal diplomatic treatment to Prime Minister Gillard during her time in the U.S. capital. She stayed in the president’s most prestigious guest house (Blair House—just steps away from the White House) and received a Hollywood-like reception at the Australian embassy. Moreover, Gillard got to “be in the classroom” after-all. A trip was organized and accompanied by the president for Gillard to visit a school across the Potomac in the city of Arlington, Virginia, where the media captured Gillard brimming ear to ear. Questions were fielded from the left and right, and populist Vegemite talk was again allowed to play its part. In more ways than one, it was symbolic that Gillard made the visit to the school. Not only did it show that Gillard has a knack for getting what she wants wherever she goes around the world, but the images of Gillard in a classroom also nicely depicted the fact that she herself has a lot to learn as prime minister. Gillard was “schooled” in Washington by her trip, but many more lessons awaited her return to Australia. Most importantly, Gillard must confront the increasingly volatile carbon tax issue she brought to the forefront at home, and how she failed to broach the topic with Obama when the all-important opportunity presented itself.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow Joss Douglas

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COHA, or Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, was established to promote the common interests of the hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.

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