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Strut on world stage puts some spring in Gillard's faltering step

John Howard's memoir runs for more than 700 pages, but devotes just a solitary paragraph to the political benefits of rubbing shoulders with global leaders, including American presidents, on one's home turf - especially when you're in trouble in the polls.

John Howard's memoir runs for more than 700 pages, but devotes just a solitary paragraph to the political benefits of rubbing shoulders with global leaders, including American presidents, on one's home turf - especially when you're in trouble in the polls.

John Howard's memoir runs for more than 700 pages, but devotes just a solitary paragraph to the political benefits of rubbing shoulders with global leaders, including American presidents, on one's home turf - especially when you're in trouble in the polls.

The APEC meeting of 2007 was the biggest gathering of political heavyweights ever to assemble in Australia and it happened on Howard's watch. There were picture opportunities galore with George Bush, China's Hu Jintao and Russia's Vladimir Putin lavish banquets and a now largely forgotten communique, the Sydney Declaration, that - get this - committed those present to move on climate change.

It didn't help Howard. Midway through the meeting, a poll showed the Coalition 18 percentage points behind Labor on two-party-preferred terms. Two months later, Howard lost an election and his seat.

''APEC was a neutral for domestic politics. I had expected nothing else,'' the former PM wrote in his book, Lazarus Rising. To the extent that it had any influence on voter attitudes, it was a negative. ''[Kevin] Rudd won points for being able to speak Mandarin in public at the official luncheon for the Chinese president.''

Will Barack Obama's visit be any different for Julia Gillard? I suspect it will, and not simply because it coincides with a period when the Prime Minister's dismal approval ratings have begun to improve.

It was about this time last year that Gillard confessed that foreign affairs wasn't her passion, and that she would much prefer be in a classroom listening to kids learn how to read than attending global summits. Now, thanks to an easy relationship with Barack Obama, she has been able to visit classrooms with the leader of the free world and strut the global stage.

More than that, the leader whose legitimacy has been under constant challenge from Tony Abbott since last year's dead-heat election has looked decidedly prime ministerial in a host of settings. Suddenly, a weakness has become something of a strength.

The confidence is reflected in Gillard's decision to move for uranium sales to India and her embrace of a reaffirmed and strengthened alliance with America - and the bold direction Obama wants to take it.

''This is a strong double whammy,'' is how the Lowy Institute's Dr Michael Fullilove puts it. ''These are two big foreign policy decisions, and elements of her party and the Greens would oppose both of them. She looks more comfortable - but more than that, if you wanted to characterise her foreign policy, you would place it in the centrist mainstream of Australian foreign policy.''

While commentators such as Lionel Barber, editor of London's Financial Times, consider the closer engagement between the Australian and US military a ''judicious'' response to China's rising power, it is not without risks. As Professor Hugh White sees it, the big one is that China bites back. ''Obama presented a view of Asia's future which was entirely framed around American interests, American values and American leadership, and which made no concessions to China's growing power at all,'' White says. ''He didn't explain how he was going to achieve it without treading on China's toes.''

How China reacts, and how Australia and the US manage that reaction, is something that will test leaders of both countries. But the immediate take-out is that, after of decade of preoccupation with the war on terror, America is heading in the direction Bill Clinton anticipated when he addressed the Australian Parliament in 1996 and delivered a true speech of vision. That is good for Australia, and good for Gillard. Clinton's speech committed the US to a ''shared destiny'' with Australia in the Asia-Pacific region and included a line that is as true today as it was then about China: ''The way it decides its greatness in the future will help to decide whether the next century is one of conflict or co-operation.''

In the space of a fortnight, Gillard has been with Obama at summits in Cannes and Honolulu and hosted him in Australia. Today they are together again at the East Asia Summit in Bali. She also played host to the Commonwealth leaders meeting in Perth.

In the same period, Abbott had his own overseas visit that resulted in him being absent when the carbon tax passed through Parliament, then delivered an altogether inappropriate speech welcoming Obama to the Australian Parliament - one that embarrassed several of his colleagues because he injected partisan politics into an occasion that should have transcended the domestic political debate.

The result is a change in the atmospherics of Australian politics for the last sitting week of Parliament next week, and a new context for Labor's national conference in a fortnight.

Not so long ago, the conference loomed as a meaningless affair, and perhaps the wake before the much-anticipated burial of Gillard's leadership. Her stocks were so low that there seemed nothing more to lose.

Now the conference looms as an opportunity to build on her momentum - and a risk.

If she prevails, or escapes embarrassment, on the big debates - on uranium sales to India, same-sex marriage, asylum seekers and party reform - Gillard will end the year with her authority enhanced and the prospect of being given more time to put Labor back in the contest.

Kevin Rudd has already predicted the outcome of what may be the most bruising debate of all, on uranium, saying the Right faction, with about 55 per cent of the vote, will prevail over the Left, with around 45 per cent. He has also made it clear that he will be supporting the Gillard position.

But his admission that he was not consulted by Gillard before she announced her intention to move - even though he said he was not fussed by the failure - is a window into the relationship between the present Prime Minister and the man she deposed - the man who would be reinstalled if Labor's primary vote fails to return to competitive territory next year.

On same-sex marriage, Gillard's steadfast opposition to any change in the Marriage Act still puzzles many in her party. Her support for a conscience vote will mitigate the fallout from being out of step with what the polls show is the emphatic view of Labor supporters.

On both issues, uranium and same-sex marriage, there is the potential plus of putting distance between Labor and the Greens, whose influence unsettles many, while appeasing particular unions.

Then there is the question of Labor Party reform, where Gillard will back the most contentious recommendation of the party's post-election review - the trialling of ''community preselections'', or primaries, to attract better candidates - as part of a strategy to increase the party membership. Once again, she is likely to get her way, with state branches given flexibility on how they want to proceed.

Among the unknowns are how any debate on asylum seeker policy will unfold and who will emerge as the Labor president for the next three years. If it turns out to be Tony Sheldon, the Transport Workers Union federal secretary who has been a key figure in the ugly Qantas dispute, some worry about the signal this would send.

What is clear is that Gillard is in much better shape now than just a few weeks ago. ''She was a goner a month ago,'' one Labor veteran said yesterday. ''Now, slowly, creakingly, the Queen Mary has turned. How far and at what speed remains to be seen.''

The truth of it is that the Obama visit, and the weight of what was discussed, has given Gillard a dose of the quality that Howard correctly observed only four months ago was lacking - authority. How she uses it will determine her fate.

Michael Gordon is national editor.

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