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The New Face of Australia: Julia Gillard

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during a press conference at Parliament House on June 24, 2010 in Canberra, Australia, not long after becoming Australia's first woman Prime Minister. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
by Jennifer Mattson
24 June 2010

By Andrew

BRISBANE, Australia, June 24, 2010 - The advent of Australia's first woman Prime Minister is a significant
milestone in the country's development.

Julia Gillard's replacement of Kevin Rudd following his
resignation means that Australia now has a female head of government (Gillard) and
a female head of state (Governor-General Quentin Bryce), who also represents Queen
Elizabeth II.

But, to those in Asia and the United States, the political
demise of Rudd amid a revolt inside the governing Labor Party must look
decidedly odd. He was yet to complete his elected first term in office, a
premature exit that perhaps only former Japanese Prime Ministers can relate to.

He was also Australia's most "Asia-literate" prime minister,
which was exemplified by his fluency in Mandarin and his championing of Australia's
high level engagement in its region.

Just last week Rudd hosted a high profile visit by Chinese
Vice President Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao's probable successor. It occurred against
the backdrop of a Sino-Australia relationship that has never been in better
shape, thanks in no small part to Rudd's own knowledge of China and his
personal commitment to improving ties with Beijing, despite differences over
human rights and rows over foreign investment.

It is difficult to see how Australia's relationships with
key Asian partners will suffer under his successor. Before she challenged him
from the leadership, Gillard was Rudd's deputy.

Overall a Gillard-led government remains committed to a
strong regional focus in foreign policy. However, it is equally hard to see how
she will be able to match Rudd's natural affinity with, and genuine knowledge
of, Asian affairs.

The fall of Rudd also robs President Barack Obama of one of
his key political allies on the issues of Afghanistan, climate change, and
global economic reform. The two have struck up a close working relationship-an
ideal fit as two like-minded "policy wonks"-and Obama will probably miss Rudd's
close counsel on these, and other, issues.

Gillard's rise to prime minister was due largely to Rudd's
failures on the domestic policy front. Yet, one of her biggest challenges will
be ensuring that she maintains her predecessor's impressive management of
Australia's key relationships in Asia and Washington.

O'Neil is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Griffith
Asia Institute at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. He wrote this for
Asia Society.