BY DANIEL FLITTON
OPINION – THE AGE
AUSTRALIA'S REGIONAL REPUTATION is becoming increasingly damaged. No matter who ultimately prevails from the present political ruckus - be it Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott - the Australian prime minister needs to do a repair job with countries in the neighbourhood.
In what is an all-too-typical self-obsession, our leaders have paid little attention to how their squabbles are perceived by the world outside. Whether by becoming caught up in the debates or through neglect, some of our key relationships have been put through the wringer and it is doing Australia damage.
Let's take each in turn. Gillard's biggest foreign policy initiative is the attempt to turn the region into a dumping ground for unwanted people arriving by boat.
Rudd has neglected problems nearer to home - turmoil in Papua New Guinea, repression in Fiji or fighting on the Thai-Cambodia border - preferring to concentrate on the distant and higher profile ills plaguing the world, such as Libya or Syria.
Abbott has trashed Malaysia as a cane-wielding theocracy in his opposition to the government's plans for a refugee swap, and done little to dispel perceptions he is more comfortable with ties to the ''Anglosphere''.
This is overstated, of course, but such criticism is always amplified out of all proportion when broadcast abroad. People in other countries don't grasp the subtlety and nuance of Australia's political debates - and often enough, these contests display about as much subtlety as players on an AFL field.
Too easily overlooked is Gillard's quiet attempt to chart Australia a course in the so-called ''Asian century'', in good part a consequence of her self-professed lack of ''passion'' for international affairs.
The difficulty for Rudd in being seen to interfere in the PNG crisis, or his early encouragement for Burma's tentative democratic reforms, haven't got nearly the same attention as his globetrotting attempts to insert Australia into the Arab Spring.
Nor has Abbott's pledge to allow groups to sponsor refugees to come to Australia over and above the regular intake got much notice in the midst of his relentless talk of stopping the boats.