05 February 2012

In another world

Now's the time to have some big ideas
Now's the time to make some firm decisions
We saw the Buddha in a bar down south
Talking politics and nuclear fission
We see him and he's all washed up
Moving on into the body of a beetle
Getting ready for a long long crawl
He aint nothing - he aint nothing at all

- Shriekback Gunning for the Buddha
Last week, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd went to Ashgrove in suburban Brisbane to demonstrate his formidable campaigning skills, the ones that are apparently going to blow away Julia Gillard any day now. He talked about Syria. Kate Jones, the Labor MP trying to fend off Campbell Newman, looked pleased and supportive until she realised that he really was going to go on and on about Syria.

Then he met with Henry Kissinger, and again went on about Syria. Yes, he got himself on the telly, and if that was the objective then mission accomplished. However, in terms of Australia's foreign policy, what did he say?
  • Are Australian troops being sent to Syria? No.
  • Is Australia taking some other sort of action against Syria - e.g., trade embargoes? No.
  • Are Australian citizens being evacuated from Syria? No.
  • Has he given the Syrian Ambassador to Australia a good ticking-off? No.
  • Does he know that any action in the UN will fail given the widely anticipated veto from China and Russia? Surely, yes.
  • Given the failure of the Arab League to stop the meltdown of the Syrian government and the slaughter of its own citizens, is an official condemnation from the Australian Foreign Minister going to have any impact at all? No.
Why does he bother going on about Syria? Rudd is reverting to the same schtick that he used to rise to national prominence almost a decade ago. He has always been Mr Foreign Policy, but it's clear he's crap at it. It's too late for that now.

Rudd exposed and hammered the role played by the Howard government and AWB in selling Australian wheat to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in breach of UN sanctions. Eventually the Howard government instigated a Royal Commission into the program; Howard, Downer and Vaile gave evidence to that and claimed the were exonerated, when the scope of the Royal Commission explicitly excluded them.

Had Rudd held an inquiry into the role played by the government in that matter, it would have been impossible for the Liberals to make their case that the Howard government was "a golden age". Nelson and Turnbull would have distanced themselves from Howard and an Abbott leadership would have been impossible, given his closeness to Howard.

Rudd approved Downer's appointment as UN special adviser in Cyprus. There's been nary a word on how that's going until the Cypriot parliament rose up against him. Such a turn-up means Downer is either doing everything right or everything wrong: if he'd been doing everything right I suspect we would have heard more about it.

As Prime Minister, Rudd promised a new relationship with China - the zhengyou, the friend who can speak honestly. No evidence of such a relationship is evident from the Chinese end, neither officially nor unofficially. The trade relationship seems to have improved despite the Rudd government rather than because of it, led by mining companies that cannot be said to be zhengyou with Rudd or the post-2007 Labor government more generally.

To see Rudd's failure as Foreign Minister most clearly, look at Australia's relationships with other countries: not just what just goes on in other countries, as the MSM tends to report it, but how the Australian government interprets what's going on and how it reacts.

Thailand is the biggest economy in southeast Asia and was Australia's ninth-largest export market for goods in 2007, apparently, and thousands of Australians go there every year. It underwent significant political turmoil a few years ago and may yet undergo more as King Bhumibol ages. This is a situation from which remarkably few repercussions have flowed to Australia.

The ABC's Zoe Daniel did an epic job of covering the violence in Bangkok, and of course she was overlooked for Walkleys - one of those omissions that detracts from the awards rather than the non-recipient.

What is Australia's foreign policy interest in Thailand? How well or badly does the Australian government promote and defend Australia's interests in Thailand (and what might they be)? Why aren't Thai language, law, politics and other cultural subjects taught at Australian schools and universities more than they are?

Why isn't there so much more to our relationship with India than cricket, curry and coal? Is uranium really that much of a stumbling block? Have they forgotten about Dr Haneef (have we)?

Why do we only hear of Indonesia when it's time to put another bogan into Kerobokan?

We only seem to hear about Malaysia when they:
  • put their former Deputy PM and Opposition Leader back into prison for doing what many Australians do as a normal part of their love lives; and
  • treat undocumented refugees in the same brutal way that a small number of scared little Australian men who recite advertising copy in padded, wired-up rooms for a few hours a day would have the Australian government treat them.
There should be so much more to our relationship with that country than this.

There should be something in the Australian journalists' code of ethics where any journalist/editor using the phrase "trouble in paradise" to describe civil unrest in South Pacific countries (except New Zealand, whose politics, history and racial policies deserve wider coverage here) should be taken to the top of a coconut palm and thrown off it.

Why is internal turmoil in Pakistan and Sri Lanka (and by "turmoil", I don't mean losing five wickets for less than fifty runs on the third day of a Test) only of academic interest? Taiwan: what's going on there, how does it affect us?

If we're going to get hot and bothered about Syria, why not Bahrain or Egypt? There is a significant Egyptian community in Australia - including a higher proportion of Coptic Christians than is to be found in their home country. The last Australian government to fully engage with Egypt was the Menzies government's leadership over Suez in the 1950s. Today, what is the Australian foreign policy interest in Egypt, and how well or badly is the post-2007 government managing that?

Nothing in this blogpost should be interpreted as me blaming Kevin Rudd for my stupefying ignorance of foreign policy. If Rudd had the sort of impact on foreign policy that Keating had on economic policy, Australia would have a more mature and wide-ranging debate on foreign policy issues than we do, and such maturity would reflect better on Rudd than he can expect from the situation before him - and us - today.

In 1989 Kevin Rudd became Director-General of the Queensland Cabinet Office, and helped institute an Asia-literacy program for that state's schools. Labor has held government in that state for 20 of the past 22 years; Queenslanders doing Year 12 in 2012 began their schooling after that program had commenced. You'd think that Queensland would have the sort of dominance in Asian languages and other studies that NSW does in history; sadly, no. He instituted a similar program nationally as Prime Minister - well, he announced it, which isn't the same thing really.

Teachers can only teach so much in a social context of utter indifference. For all his picfacs and frequent-flyer miles, Kevin Rudd has done little to ameliorate that indifference to foreign societies and has probably added to it. One of the few telling lines in Tony Abbott's address to the NPC last week was this:
We will concentrate on the areas that are most important to Australia and where Australia can make the most difference, so our foreign policy will have a Jakarta focus rather than a Geneva one.
Yes, it's a facile line from a facile speech; I'd love to hear Abbott explain it. Yes, Tony Abbott has less foreign policy substance than Rudd or Gillard, or even a few species of fungus. But it's telling because for all Rudd's activity, nobody has much of a clue what he's up to - even people who know about foreign policy.

For a man who's meant to be Mr Foreign Policy, it's all rather a shaky basis from which to lunge for higher office. Rudd should have smacked Abbott for daring to waddle onto his turf, to demonstrate that he is not to be trifled with by lightweights. Gareth Evans tried this in 1996 and he only sounded pompous and irrelevant, as did Downer in 2007. Rudd seems to have little real basis to rebut Liberal criticisms of his foreign policy, such as they are, and make a case that Australian foreign policy is too important to be entrusted to the likes of him. Where Rudd mixes it with the lightweights he does so on pretty much equal terms.

This takes us to Peter Hartcher's article on Saturday. It's structured like a News Ltd piece, where the first bit is pretentious, silly, and far too long a lead-in to a fairly weak three-point argument.

First, Labor's fortunes did not begin to slide once Rudd was replaced. Rudd was replaced because Labor's fortunes had begun to slide. The Rudd that would be restored hypothetically would not be the all-conquering titan of '07 but the administrative retard who tried to slide around "the greatest moral challenge of our time".

Second, what Hartcher calls Gillard's "twisting and turning and schemes and strategems", I'd call achievements. What Rudd talked about, Gillard delivered. Where Rudd had a clear majority, Gillard hasn't - and she's still held the show together, however tenuously. If Rudd were to become Labor leader again - never mind relations with independent MPs or the Greens, much of Labor's Cabinet would refuse to work with him or would do so under extreme sufferance. A leader is a unifying force or he is on his way to becoming an ex-leader. We can all agree that Rudd is an ex-leader, and that he's not a unifying force.

Hartcher quotes ACNeilsen's John Stirton thus:
"Dislike of Gillard, where it exists, is deep and visceral".
Stirton could have said, had Hartcher asked him, that there were times during their Prime Ministerships when you could have said the same of Fraser, Hawke, Keating or Howard. There are more than a few Libs who really resent Rudd for chucking them off the gravy train. If you want Rudd to take that same journey into the valley of the shadow of deep visceral dislike, then why not promote him beyond his competence - again.

Third, nobody gets a honeymoon in politics these days. Where is the press gallery journalist - apart from Hartcher - who would rather attend one of Rudd's extended Castro-like rambling disquisitions on the nature of society and the world at large, rather than watch Tony Abbott patronise some blue-collar workers? Rudd would be damaged goods to everyone but Hartcher, and would he (Rudd, I mean, not Hartcher) be as stoic under pressure as Gillard is? The implication that the government would get an even break from the press is unsustainable naive crap.

Peter Hartcher was a leading Press Gallery journalist before and during the Rudd government. In many cases he was there to catch leaks that emanated from Rudd's office. There were times in 2009-10 that whenever Rudd wanted to say something indirectly, he said it through Hartcher. The past two years have been pretty fallow for Hartcher journalism-wise - he's written a book - but you can understand why he's excited at the prospect of Rudd returning. No more intoning sadly that the government isn't getting its message out - journalists could simply report what the message is, if only Gillard weren't delivering it.


  1. @JewelRainbow6/2/12 12:54 a.m.

    An amusing and thought-provoking piece of writing. Why aren't you in the Canberra press gallery?

  2. Not that relevant to your post, but I can't believe someone other than me remembers Shriekback!!!

    1. When people complain about '80s music, they rarely remember them or nominate them as an example. Sad I lost my copy of 'Big Night Music' along the way.

  3. Good job, as always. You may also be amused to see that Hartcher isn't going to let a substantially improved poll for Gillard/Labor turn him in his view that its RUDDSTORATION OR DEATH. http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/lots-of-pain-but-a-surprise-gain-20120205-1qzv9.html Especially amusing is the part where he says that Labor lost the 2010 election. Perhaps he's just been living in a parallel universe the whole time.

  4. Thank your for your thoughts. You save me wasting my time reading the rubbish of Hartcher et al in the MSM.

  5. Perhaps Mr Hartcher is angry at the loss of status piled on him by Rudd's leaks. Perhaps it's all about Peter.

  6. Quite off topic, but speaking of Peter Hartcher and the wonders of the Canberra Press Gallery, Katharine Murphy has an absolute corker today. And by "corker" I mean...

  7. It would be interesting to see a list of journos and the leak sources they are aligned with, and how that affects their opinions.

  8. Sadly, you are more than right about Rudd being a useless Foreign Minister. I may be being unfair to him, but I have long suspected that he stayed on in parliament because it would provide a stepping stone to a prestigious position at the UN.

  9. SO i learned a lot from this, and I understand your points about engaging with Asia...but does the Hartcher rant belong in another post or as some context in the middle? I ended it thinking Rudd won't be Labor leader again "because Peter Hartcher" rather than because Rudd is all talk and his party doesn't much like him actually.

    1. Hartcher was so bogged in insider bullshit of polls and anonymous sources that I wanted to put the position of Rudd into the context of a chaotic foreign policy. Whether or not Labor people like him is a matter for Labor people. Only after I did that did I feel able to engage with Hartcher's article on something more than its own terms.

      Looking back on it, I should have summed up the whole article better.

  10. Ben Eltham pointing out the shallowness of the reporting over the last few days.


    "The only people who are saying that a leadership challenge is on the cards are a small number of "Rudd supporters", none of whom have had the guts to go on the record with their real names, and a bunch of journalists who would probably fail a first-year journalism subject if they submitted the sort of articles that have been published in abundance in recent days"

    1. And, if the whole thing wasn't quite meta enough, now we're starting to see journos getting defensive in the backlash and saying "it's not us, it's not confected, it's real!!" Expect to see more pieces like this.

    2. Yeah really! Its like Lenore Taylor was recently replaced by a pod person version of herself. ;)

  11. On foreign policy Rudd is just mimicking the odious Gareth Evans and his 'responsibility to protect' shtick.

    Ghadaffi must go! Assad must go! Suadi King must .... er no, not that one.

    He is taken seriously by nobody, but will find out that he has been riding on a tigers back. The trouble will come when he wants to get off.

    China just thinks he's an opportunistic lightweight.

    Sunday's Willesee interview with the PM was quite revealing as was the subsequent presser follow up. What did think of Rudd telling his buddy Julie Bishop that the Lodge was 'boganville'?

    Her answer sounded to me like; "Well Mike, I am a simple girl from a working class background, and I can't help who I am. (I went to a simple public school and did not have the benefit of a private school education, like you, and most of the commentariat as well as the leader of the opposition and most of the shadow circus.)" Words in brackets are mine.