There is a lovely story from Prime Minister Billy McMahon's 1971 trip to America that, strangely enough, does not involve his wife Sonia's daring evening gown.
It comes from the Waldorf Hotel in New York, where the prime ministerial entourage whiled away a stray Saturday night by watching Eartha Kitt's cabaret show. Beforehand, it was suggested to the singer that she might serenade the visiting VIP. 'So, at the end of show,' wrote Mungo MacCallum, who was traveling with the Prime Minister, 'Eartha came crooning up to McMahon's table, made a fast guess and embraced what looked to her like the person most likely to lead the country – who was the US security man.'
If anything, things got worse in Washington. At the White House dinner, President Richard Nixon had to ask McMahon how to pronounce his name before introducing him at dinner.
As Julia Gillard arrives in New York to address the UN General Assembly and to lobby for a seat on the Security Council, it is worth asking whether the present Australian Prime Minister, and her possible successor Tony Abbott, suffer from the same problem of international recognition. After a string of global heavy hitters, from Gough Whitlam through to Kevin Rudd, has not Australia returned to the days of leaders like McMahon, who tread the world stage with a noticeably lighter footprint?
Two years into her prime ministership, Julia Gillard has become a regular at summit meetings. She has also come to enjoy an obviously warm relationship with Barack Obama and addressed a joint session of Congress, an honor not even conferred on Robert Menzies. As Hugh White wrote in The Monthly, ahead of a particularly busy spurt of international travel this time last year: 'Gillard has all the attributes of a successful summiteer, she is a good listener and a capable chairperson, charming and gracious in company, and not prone to silly gaffes or inappropriate outbursts.' But though she has become a popular presence at these gatherings, she has hardly become a creative diplomatic force.
Here, Julia Gillard hobbled herself from the start. First, she gave Kevin Rudd the foreign affairs portfolio, which meant that he continued to hog much of the international attention. So much so, that he almost appeared to the rest of the world as an acting prime minister-at-large.
Second, she indicated, largely for domestic consumption, that she had no passion for foreign affairs. As she famously told Kerry O'Brien in an interview on the 7:30 Report on her first prime ministerial trip abroad, she would rather spend time 'watching kids learn to read in Australia than here in Brussels at international meetings.' In other words, she was happy to remain a stay-at-home prime minister, and outsource foreign policy, pretty much, to her predecessor. For her own political survival, it helped that he spent so much time out of the country.
Since then, Gillard has not delivered a major, wide-ranging foreign policy speech or set out a clear vision of Australia's place in the region or the world. Other than the surprise decision to sell uranium to India, she is not associated with any major new diplomatic initiative.
Would Tony Abbott make more of an international mark? In recent months, the Liberal leader has delivered what were billed as major foreign speeches at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and in Beijing. But neither speech could be described as diplomatically imaginative. Like Gillard, he has also sought to make a virtue of his focus on domestic issues. As told the Wall Street Journal early in his leadership: 'Oz pollies who think the world is interested in them have tickets on themselves.'
The ambitions of both Gillard and Abbott seem happily accommodated within these shores. When they retire from politics, for instance, it is hard to imagine either taking up any kind of international role. Nor does it help Australia's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council that the present PM and her possible successor have decided to make global affairs such a low priority.
Here, not for the first time, the Canberra story is starkly at odds with the national story. Rarely, if ever, has the rest of the world shown so much interest in Australia, whether it is country's economic success, the introduction of the carbon tax or the move to restrict cigarette packaging. But rarely, if ever, have the leaders of the two major parties shown such little interest in the rest of the world.
Photo by Flickr user Gobiermo Federal.