Talk about jumping into the deep end.
The wheels on Anthony Albanese’s new pair of wings left the Canberra asphalt at exactly 12: 10.32 on Monday.
He had only officially been Prime Minister for three hours and five minutes, and here he was, on his way to Tokyo on RAAF’s KC-30A, on his way to a critical meeting with world leaders with the US President as the headline.
Albanese has chosen an extraordinary international inauguration.
After a grim six-week tug-of-war with Scott Morrison, what a sweet confirmation it could have felt to fly away in his predecessor’s jet as Australia’s man.
Not that Albanese have had much time for such pinch-yourself moments. He knows he has a huge task ahead of him, namely to protect the nation’s interests abroad while trying to make his own mark on the countryside.
Albanese’s first press conference as prime minister, shortly before he left Canberra, was instructive on both fronts.
He said he wanted to lead a government that “makes Australians proud” and “change the way politics was conducted”, noting that Australians had conflict fatigue.
These are admirable, high emotions. It would be unfair not to think that this is his sincere intention. But even Tony Abbott, Parliament’s famous pugilist, said he wanted a “gentler policy” when he became prime minister, but he could not resist the scrum and returned to writing.
As for Australia’s international prospects, Albanians promised continuity in key alliances and the projection of democracy.
This was a message to Australia’s allies, but also to Beijing: The other guy is gone, but Australia’s commitment to rule-based order and resistance to Chinese aggression remains firm.
What he signaled would change was Australia’s global climate change agreements, which is the key reason why Albanese were so keen to attend the Quad meeting in Tokyo so soon after the election.
In fact, nothing louder on the international stage says Australia is under new administration than proclamations to take stronger climate action.
And on that front, Albanese has a fellow traveler in US President Joe Biden. This alone wins the new Prime Minister a significant American favor.
But resuming Australia’s role as climate master serves other strategic purposes, both at home and abroad.
Albanese and his newly-appointed Foreign Minister Penny Wong believe action on climate change will help restore many of the Pacific and South-East Asia partnerships that have been strained over the past decade.
Climate change is also talking to the progressive voters in the inner city, who have fired liberals from once blue ribbons in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth in favor of blue-green independents and greens.
Labour’s loss in the Griffith constituency in Brisbane warns Albanese that the ALP is far from immune to the blue-green or green invaders.
So attending today’s Quad meeting for the leaders of India, Japan, USA and Australia is Albanese’s big payout of values.
Will the US ultimately ask Australia to do more on CO2 emissions? Undoubtedly.
In fact, this could be the price Australia has to pay if Albanese pursues its ambition to host an international climate conference.
However, despite the threat of teal tide or international pressure, embracing a higher carbon reduction target is not without danger to the home. As the new PM is aware. He wants to end the nation’s climate wars, not incite them.
Just as he defends Labor’s support for step three tax cuts, citing the fact that he is a man of his word, Albanese’s promise to keep its existing promise of carbon reduction is higher than the coalition’s.
While this is an expression of integrity – in a political environment where issues of integrity have become a lightning rod for voice changers – it also acts as a shield against those who demand greater ambition.
The quad meeting will be Labor’s first opportunity to assess on its own how China has changed geopolitics since the ALP last came to power.
That was in 2013, the same year that Xi Jinping became president.
“China has changed,” Albanese’s go-to statement has said in recent weeks, when asked about a China that has become more authoritarian and more regionally assertive.
Together with Biden, India’s Narendra Modi and Japan’s Fumio Kishida, Albanese will realize how true this rehearsed assessment can be.
And this is the sharpest edge to the Prime Minister’s trip to Tokyo, even if it is not declared.
Albanese and Wong have no delusions about Beijing. They know that this will remain a difficult relationship, regardless of who is the Prime Minister or Foreign Minister.
And the advisers accompanying Albanese on his first journey are a clear indication of how those paid to advise the Australian government perceive that challenge.
Welcome to the club
The Prime Minister’s job comes with significant human tools that provide consistent advice explaining bipartisanship on issues of national security and foreign policy.
Secretary of Defense Greg Moriarty accompanies Albanese. The same goes for the director general of the Office of Intelligence, Andrew Shearer, a notorious China hawk with superb connections to Washington networks.
Together, they helped deliver the AUKUS deal to the Morrison government – a deal that not only lowered relations with France (along with a $ 90 billion submarine contract) but is also seen as a long-term strategic bulwark against China.
It is not surprising then that the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson should have called Albanese when he was on his way to Tokyo.
Their 25-minute conversation covered the security deal and climate change.
After Biden’s chat with Albanese on Sunday, he has been welcomed to the AUKUS club.
The Prime Minister and Chief of Staff of the International Department, Rod Brazier, will also be accompanying the tour.
Brazier is a veteran diplomat who was High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands. His old Honiara treadmill is now at the center of Beijing’s largest regional spectacle to date.
Being briefed on the plane to Tokyo must have been like drinking from a fire hydrant for the new prime minister.
Albanians enter a difficult job in an extraordinarily difficult time in international affairs.
When he gets home, the challenge is just as tough.
Painful inflation, low wage growth, huge debt… and even higher voter expectation that he set.
But it may wait until next week.
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