The PM’s dilemma: 747 or 24/7 governing

Katina Curtis, AAP Senior Political Writer
(Australian Associated Press)

 

Prime ministerial travel is a tricky business.

There’s a certain amount of time overseas needed to maintain Australia’s standing in the world and protect our national interests.

But too much and there’s a risk of being portrayed as a jetsetter who’s more interested in foreign shores than the problems of Australians.

The approach of recent prime ministers falls into two camps.

There are those who lean into it and enjoy the statesman role – think Kevin “747” Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.

Then there are those who profess they’d rather be back home.

Julia Gillard copped flack in 2010 when she told reporters foreign policy wasn’t her passion and she’d much rather be at a school somewhere in the Australian suburbs than sitting with them in Brussels, where she’d just wrapped up meetings with European leaders on her first trip abroad as prime minister.

Scott Morrison is seeking to shape himself in a similar mould.

Standing in Biarritz’s art deco casino and looking out at its famous beach on Monday, he sold himself as just a bloke from the Shire who’d really rather be back home working.

“Look, I’m not one who rushes for the plane to attend summits. That’s not my style,” he told reporters as the G7 summit wound up.

So much so that he returned to the theme several times.

“Australia has been invited to come and participate in the G7 … and so as a result, of course, I’m going to come.

“It would be, I think, disrespectful to … our hosts but also Australians who, I think, through their own efforts have been able to put Australia’s head up.”

Gillard was education minister before rising to the top job and thus had been solely focused on domestic policy.

She relaxed into the needs of representing Australia on the world stage, and six months after those interviews in Brussels was tossing a footy around the Oval Office with Barack Obama.

Morrison as treasurer and his earlier incarnation as immigration minister – and even his pre-politics gig with Tourism Australia – has already spent quite a bit of time advocating for the national interest overseas.

He mostly looks relaxed mingling with other leaders, whether joshing with Boris Johnson over the cricket or answering the Chilean president’s earnest questions about swimming.

And the outcomes show he’s not shy in pressing Australia’s case – especially trade deals and the pursuit of social media to take down terrorist postings.

Joining the leaders of the seven economically advanced democracies but having a seat closer to the sidelines than the table could have been a tough task.

Many Australians may have thought the attitude towards Morrison was captured in the millisecond of video footage from the family photo that showed the prime minister looking at his phone as other leaders walked towards him – especially once a photoshopped version exaggerating the space around him circulated on Twitter.

But in reality, although he only took part in three hours’ worth of formal G7 sessions during the two days, he managed to have lengthy meetings with the leaders of the United States, Britain, Canada, Japan, Germany, India, Italy, Chile and OECD and chats with others.

Yet there are still dangers in appearing to be hobnobbing.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese laid these bare on Tuesday when he said: “It’s a good thing that Australia is represented in international forums – but Mr Morrison’s problem is what is going on at home, here.”

Morrison has developed the careful habit of ending his international tours by looking down the barrel of a camera and telling Australians why it’s important to them that he be there.

One-in-five jobs is linked to trade deals, he’ll say, before enthusing about the speed with which Australia can make such deals.

Asked whether he’d had “fun” with the rare invitation to the exclusive G7, Morrison made a somewhat bizarre segue to talk about productivity.

“It’s been a busy few days particularly after a very busy time we had in Vietnam, so I am looking forward to getting home and focusing on issues there,” he said before mentioning a speech his treasurer gave a few hours earlier in Australia.

“Productivity I know scares a lot of people but it’s just simply this: it’s our plan to ensure that you earn more from what you do.”

So, not too much fun then.

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