In his first month on the world stage Anthony Albanese received top marks from members of the foreign policy and defence establishment – and some in its typing pool – for exceeding their expectations.
But Mr Albanese is now facing criticism for chewing over one overseas engagement many might have presumed a slam dunk for any prime minister.
On Wednesday he again seemed to duck a question about whether he would be accepting an invitation to visit Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv at the end of this month.
“We will take advice from the national security agencies and from Defence and will respond to that advice as appropriate,” Mr Albanese said.
He made similarly non-committal remarks a week ago. There’s less than a week left until what likely tie-in for such a trip, his attendance at a historic Madrid summit of world leaders on the future of NATO.
Democracies ‘should support each other’
This has caught the attention of Peter Jennings, former head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“It’s just strange, actually,” he said.
“It’s perhaps reflecting the fact that he’s very new and perhaps a bit tentative.
“I think not travelling on the basis of security concerns is going to look fairly ridiculous. He could be in and out of Kyiv literally within three hours.
“Democracies should be supporting each other.
“My particular concern is that China is looking at Ukraine very much to sort of assume and accumulate lessons for its own designs on Taiwan.”
Mr Albanese’s equivocations alone are a break fro bipartisan condemnation that followed Russia’s invasion and a previous government response that included demanding Russian state television be wiped from the internet.
Last week Mr Albanese said he had only just learnt of the invitation from President Zelensky.
But talk in Canberra’s diplomatic circles suggest that Ukraine’s energetic ambassador Vasyl Myroshnychenko has been lobbying hard for a visit since even before the election.
“He is still holding out hope for a meeting,” one source said of his latest overture.
Mr Myroshnychenko has recently been seeking to hand deliver a written request from President Zelensky to the PMO but has apparently yet to secure a top-level meeting as he focuses increasingly on public appeals.
“If not now, when?” he recently said of visit
Two days after the election he told Australian media the president would soon invite Mr Albanese to Kyiv, then he returned from Ukraine with the hard copy invitation and even earlier this month floated plans for a free trade agreement with the new government.
European leaders in Kyiv
Meanwhile, the leaders of France, Germany and Italy have been able to visit the President’s Kyiv bunker in the past week – so too has Hollywood star Ben Stiller.
One Canberra observer said this week that President Zelensky had sought foreign visits “in the same way a hunter collects trophies” and media coverage had inflated perceptions of these meetings’ significance.
Boris Johnson has visited Kyiv twice, including recently even after his own office had become besieged.
The UK PM recently warned that the West must deliver a surge in support to help defeat Russia and any plans it might have of winning a favourable peace deal through stalemate.
But in France a growing proportion of the rest of the world there has been a competing focus on a negotiated peace.
Former PM Scott Morrison signed off on a $285 million aid package, including a fleet of armoured vehicles, and said Vladimir Putin sitting around a G20 table in Indonesia in November would be too much.
Mr Albanese broke with his predecessor saying such a meeting is too important to miss, but notes that President Zelensky will be appearing via video link.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced plans late on Wednesday to visit Moscow and Kyiv next week.
As the leader of one of the world’s largest countries to have long-standing ties to Russia and a history of foreign policy independence, President Widodo presents as a credible peacebroker.
The Indonesian President’s surprise visit or the practice of making only unannounced visits to trouble spots could suggest Mr Albanese intends to visit Kyiv some other time. But as pressure mounts, a visit now would incur little cost and easy publicity.
If he continues, Mr Albanese will be charting a more independent course on foreign policy but with unchanged objectives.
The former chief of the Australian Army, Peter Leahy, told The New Daily going to Kyiv was not comparatively important when Mr Albanese was already traveling to represent Australia on the future reach of NATO and European security.
“Australians and the Australian government had made their position abundantly clear,” said Professor Leahy, now head of the national security institute at the University of Canberra.
“They’re opposed to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and watching day by day as Russia commits more crimes and atrocities.
“There’s a lot going on in the national security space and the Prime Minister, I think, is right to allocate the substantial amount of his time to business with NATO.”