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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)

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 Andrew O'Neil

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.

Andrew 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.