Eagle Down Under: The Impact of U.S. Presidential Visits on Australian Elections

By Richard W. Teare

Australian prime minister Julia Gillard will get a bump in popularity and political standing from the two-day visit by President Barack Obama this week, which is being described in the Australian media as “Obama mania” and “Obackarama.”  But will the visit be enough to strengthen her tenuous grip on her job?

Gillard came to office in June 2010, after party elders decided that previous Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd could not win the coming election and “spilled” him.  There has been speculation that if Obama had visited Australia in March 2010, as originally planned, Rudd might still be in office.

In the August 2010 election, Labor lost several seats and had to establish a minority government, with support from a Green Party member of Parliament and three independent members of the House of Representatives on budget bills and votes of confidence.  Meanwhile, Rudd, now foreign minister, is said to be plotting a comeback.

Obama’s visit this week is not the first by a U.S. president – actual or prospective – with domestic political implications for Australia.  In 1989, Opposition and Liberal Party leader Andrew Peacock told U.S. Embassy officers he hoped that George H.W. Bush would not visit Australia before the next federal elections in mid-1990.  Peacock believed that a visit would cement the re-election of his adversary, Labor prime minister Bob Hawke.  In the event, Bush did not visit until 1991 – not demonstrably because Peacock waved him off – but Peacock lost the election, and the leadership, anyway.

On the other hand, while George W. Bush visited Sydney for the second time to attend an APEC leaders’ meeting in September 2007, his presence did not help Prime Minister John  Howard. Two months later, Howard lost his position to Rudd, after eleven years, along with the seat in Parliament he had held for more than 33 years.

Other presidential visits also got massive attention from the Australian public but did not have much political impact. Lyndon Johnson came in 1966, largely to thank Australia, a cold war ally, for sending troops to Vietnam, and again in 1967 for the funeral of Prime Minister Harold Holt, who had operated under the slogan “All the way with LBJ.”  When Bill Clinton visited in 1996, Howard was newly in office and riding high, and on George W. Bush’s first visit in October 2003, Howard had won three elections and would go on to win a fourth.

History is not necessarily prologue, but it should inform expectations. While President Obama’s long-delayed visit to Canberra is important to the Australian people, any effect it might have on Australia’s domestic politics should not be overstated.

Ambassador Richard W. Teare is former U.S. ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.

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