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Foreign affairs provide relief from tough times at home. Old allies declare they’re still good mates. Gay marriage erupts as a defining issue, while a royal marriage serves as a reminder of unfinished business for republicans. And a deadly tragedy abroad leaves more questions than answers.
Julia Gillard is not the first national leader to seek respite from domestic turbulence abroad, and she won’t be the last. The Australian prime minister has been hopping around the globe at a pace that suggests her confessed lack of natural passion for foreign affairs is being supplanted by a recognition that the best part of leading a democracy is an international summit circuit that lets you escape the voters at home as often as you like.
Gillard, only five months in the job, is the leader of a nominally progressive party squeezed by her natural allies on the left and her equally natural enemies on the right. Perhaps that was part of the common ground she found with Barack Obama when the two leaders met at a Pacific Rim summit in Japan, a grin-and-greet gathering that gave them both the chance to escape the slings and arrows of shaky fortunes at home. "Our countries are great mates, to use our term,” said Gillard, a sentiment endorsed by Obama. Ten days later they were all smiles again at the NATO summit in Portugal, sharing sympathies and agreement on the way ahead in Afghanistan.
Gillard is leading Australia towards the end of one of the most dramatic 12-month periods in its political history. This time last year, there was not a hint that the high-flying and extraordinarily popular Kevin Rudd would falter, then fall on his sword as public affection evaporated and his Labor Party colleagues decided he had to go. This November, not only is Rudd gone — forced out in favor of his erstwhile deputy Gillard — but so has the comfortable parliamentary majority he won for Labor at the 2007 election. Australia ends 2010 with a Gillard-led minority government which survived August elections only with the support of a left-leaning Greens party lawmaker and two ornery independents.
Little wonder, then, that Gillard is displaying a sudden flair for world travel — in recent weeks attending four summits across the globe, no mean feat when you’re leader of a country that is a long plane ride from anywhere, especially the northern hemisphere. And no mean feat when you’re a leader regarded as a domestic policy wonk, deft with the detail of education or employment policy, but absent obvious passion for the world outside. Aussies know this because Gillard herself told them so. A week after her deadly tight election victory, she made a surprise visit to Australian troops in Afghanistan, then hopped to an Asia-Europe summit in Belgium. Then she went on television to explain: "Foreign policy is not my passion. It's not what I've spent my life doing.''
To many commentators, she was right about that: she looked uncomfortable and uncertain. But she’s seemingly getting more adept at it, a week barely having passed since without her getting on a plane to somewhere. And why not? Chatting with Obama in Lisbon about Afghanistan policy, difficult as it is, brings none of the daily political headaches Gillard faces at home over divisive domestic issues such as gay marriage or climate change. Those are policy waters rendered all the more perilous by a parliamentary majority so razor-thin that an election replay can’t be ruled out should a Labor lawmaker die, or defect to the opposition.
The gay marriage debate is indicative of the problem. Gillard is historically a creature of the political left. But she has been insistent that she supports the standard conservative position, backing the legal definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Safe politics, but stressful for a supposed progressive.
Even more troublesome for the PM, the Greens lawmaker on whose support her government depends is an openly gay man who wants the marriage law reformed. So do many in Gillard’s own party. And so, according to the most recent opinion poll, do a healthy majority of Australians: 57 per cent. But just as Obama has wobbled on repeal of the US military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, Gillard contends daily with a fierce conservative opposition in Parliament and in the media, where such issues are being contested with unashamed ferocity. While some commentators see marriage reform as inevitable, there seems little doubt it will divide and dominate Australian politics well into 2011.
A marriage of an entirely different stripe has also been at the forefront of local minds. The engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton is a tabloid curiosity, but has an added and contentious edge in Australia, which like Canada remains a loyal subject of the Commonwealth, with the British monarch as its constitutional head of state. An infamous 1975 crisis aside, it’s seen as a benign and all-but meaningless association — and that makes it either an unbearable anachronism, or an arrangement not worth fiddling with, depending on your point of view.
Good manners dictated that Australian politicians of every stripe would wish the happy couple well. But the impending nuptials have been a reminder that Australia has delayed but not yet decided its constitutional future. William’s wedding will thrill many here, and bore many others — but it’s what happens to the public mood when his esteemed grandmother dies that will determine whether the young Windsor heir is ever crowned King of Australia.
Bank bashing is a national sport here, in a nation of current or hopeful homeowners with an extraordinary sensitivity to the behavior of the financial institutions that lend them money. So it was that when the country’s Reserve Bank announced a .25 percentage point interest rate increase on November 2, the continent all but shuddered with outrage. The media shrieked (almost) as one at the cruelty of it all. Lost in the uproar was the reality — that Australia’s stupendous economic strength requires monetary restraint lest the good times spin out of control. Meanwhile, politicians joined in a populist assault on the same financial institutions whose very stability and strength helped the country avoid the kind of recession endured in other countries. Another thing sometimes overlooked in the hysteria: It’s those high interest rates that have helped keep the Australian dollar at or near parity with the ailing greenback. As noted here previously, that’s a new and unusual phenomenon that delights many Aussies.
There are true-crime stories that chill the soul and inspire communal sadness, reflection and debate. That’s been the case here with a story involving Australian twin sisters who took themselves to a shooting range in Denver, Colorado in order to enact a deadly plan that is beyond simple understanding. Kristin and Candice Hermeler, 29-year-old twins from Melbourne who were in the U.S. on an exchange program, had agreed on a suicide pact. They shot themselves. Kristin died, Candice survived. Among the more numbing details: because they were twins, police could not initially tell their parents back in Australia which of their daughters had died. It was Candice who later revealed the pact to investigators. A link has emerged to the Columbine massacre, with Kristin having once corresponded with one of the survivors of the 1999 tragedy. For the moment, these are pieces of a puzzle that is not even close to making sense – and it seems possible neither their parents nor the public will ever really understand what led two well-to-do young women to plan and attempt this ultimate act of shared despair.