15 March 2011

What do we do with an ex Prime Minister?

After reading Niki Savva's nasty and self-defeating piece, I realised that former Prime Ministers are often regarded as a blight upon successive governments:

  • Menzies was physically absent from the Liberal-Country Party governments that followed, but he loomed large over them nonetheless;

  • Holt was of course also physically absent but left few policy legacies to his successors;

  • McEwen's legacy of protectionism (and trade with Japan) had been built long before the possibility of hiom becoming Prime Minister was ever contemplated, and by the time his short tenure passed he was past his most politically potent;

  • Gorton was both mischievous and incompetent for his successor;

  • Whitlam never had to worry about previous Labor PMs, he made plenty of problems for himself;

  • Neither Gorton nor McMahon had the good grace to exit the stage for Fraser, though they didn't do much other than give rise to inconvenient headlines;

  • Whitlam was co-opted by Hawke and Keating even though they undid many of his 1970s social-democrat policies;

  • Howard got where he was by denigrating Fraser, and that continued while the former held office;

  • Hawke and Keating continued their own spat while Rudd was in office, until Hawke joined the chorus calling for Rudd's head; and

  • Hawke and Keating seem to want to support Gillard without much of a clue how to help, and Rudd doesn't help much at all.

What do you do with an ex-Prime Minister? Surely there is some use to which they can be put that benefits public policy without posing a threat to the incumbent. No Prime Minister has really come to terms with their predecessors.

The best (or least worst) at dealing with former leaders was Hawke. He sent Whitlam to a ceremonial role in Paris (also inadvertently sending Mark Latham there as well, in an attempt to de-bogan him). He indulged Bill Hayden's first-class tourism. He seemed to value Malcolm Fraser as an envoy to South Africa, until Fraser and others were overtaken by events following the de Klerk-Mandela talks of the late 1980s/early 1990s. No other Prime Minister has made more effective use of his predecessors.

These days Hawke seems content to play golf, and he seems to consult between domestic and foreign interests that are so large they require government-to-governnment involvement. Keating is too busy being Mayor of Toytown, a role that will (hopefully) disappear within the next month or so. Whitlam is apparently in frail health. Malcolm Fraser seems too frail to travel much or offer much beyond his memoirs. John Howard seems hale and hearty enough, but what use could you put him to, what could he offer?

This leads us to Kevin Rudd, Foreign Minister:
As I walk this land of broken dreams
I have visions of many things
But happiness is just an illusion
Filled with sadness and confusion

What becomes of the broken-hearted?
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find some kind of peace of mind

The fruits of love grow all around
But for me they come a-tumblin' down
Everyday heartaches grow a little stronger
I can't stand this pain much longer

I walk in shadows, searching for light
Cold and alone, no comfort in sight
Hoping and prayin' for someone to care
Always movin' and goin' nowhere

What becomes of the broken-hearted?
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find some kind of peace of mind
Help me, please

I'm searching though I don't succeed
For someone's love there's a growing need
All is lost, there's no place for beginning
All that's left is an unhappy ending

Now what becomes of the broken-hearted?
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find some kind of peace of mind
I'll be searching everywhere
Just to find someone to care

I'll be looking everyday
I know I've got to find a way
Nothing's gonna stop me now
I'll find a way somehow

- Jimmy Dean, Paul Riser and William Witherspoon, What becomes of the broken-hearted?

The "dispute" over the no-fly zone in Libya was a perfect demonstration of Rudd's weaknesses and Gillard's strengths.

Rudd was (is?) fixated on the no-fly zone as the one and only solution to the Libyan problem. There was no explanation of the context, no exploration of what Australia's interests were in having Gaddafi gone (and no indication that Australian blood, treasure and equipment would be expended toward the possibility of post-Gaddafi freedom). You just know that Rudd would have dismissed other alternatives: the no-fly zone is a quick fix and by his presence he could claim some credit for it (the longer it takes to come about, the less credit Rudd can claim).

Gillard insisted on taking the longer and wider view, with the implicit recognition that a) there's not much for Australia to do except be broadly supportive of any specific request for assistance, and b) carbon abatement measures such as the tax really is the main game in Australian politics right now.

Savva lists the countries that Rudd has visited recently: no India, no Indonesia, no follow-up work for Gillard's recent visits to New Zealand, no Thailand (after the political uphevals of recent years, what does that country's new government look like, how does it work?). Those omissions bode ill for Australian foreign policy over the long term:

  • Surely Gillard should appoint a junior Minister Assisting to DFAT who can learn the ropes of Australian foreign policy with a view to grooming them for more senior roles down the track?

  • Surely a Liberal MP with too much time on his/her hands will be doing some reading and consultation with a view to contributing to the foreign policy debate, and shaping it when the political tide turns?

  • Is there a Green foreign policy? What would it look like?

  • What would a Christian foreign policy be, and how would a small number of Senators with the balance of power bring it about?

All this high-minded policy stuff confronts me with complex issues that neither my studies nor experience equips me to critique. I want a sound and positive foreign policy for Australia; I am aware of complaints by DFAT insiders that the department is under-resourced. Foreign policy and trade policy are not identical; one need not be subordinate to the other but they do have too be coherent to Australians as well as foreigners. Kevin Rudd seems on paper like the ideal minister but it's also possible that he's a nightmare for those who work there - not that any government department should be judged chiefly by the criteria set by those who work there, but good morale is important for any organisation.

Good policy should be matched by good reporting, rather than crap like this:
He is not so much prime minister-in-exile as he is master of the mythical vessel the Flying Dutchman ...

He's neither; he's the Minister for Foreign Affairs. It's a distinct job in itself and Rudd brings strengths and weaknesses to the role. If Niki Savva can't get over her dislike of the man then that just devalues her commentary about foreign policy under this government, and her political commentary generally.
Choking back sobs over the moon landing ... You could hear the noise rising above the treetops of the leafier suburbs as the grabs were replayed.

In other words, Savva is confirming my earlier thesis that the only people down on Gillard are those who never voted for her, which ought not be confused with the opinion of swinging voters, much less The People.
If there is the whiff of a protest in Ulaanbaatar, you can bet that Rudd will head there, or if he can't get there, then to the airport closest to the Mongolian capital that will allow him to land and report to the Australian people as swiftly as modern technology will allow.

Firstly, Australia has large and growing investments in Mongolia, thus there is a legitimate foreign policy interest there which might not have been present back in Niki Savva's day. Second, there was this, and by Savva's own admission Rudd was nowhere near the joint. Some journalist, some political analyst she is.
With his trusty mobile in his top pocket, as soon as he disembarks he will press the speed dial to call any number of radio or television stations to offer his expert commentary on whatever grievances might have spurred the locals to take to the streets and how Australia might or might not be affected by the consequences.

Imagine an Australian foreign minister using modern technology to do his job! Savva can sneer at Rudd, but not when he does what he is supposed to be doing:
... unless, of course, there is a flood in Queensland and he has to help neighbours rescue their suitcases ...

Rudd helped his constituents through a crisis: everyone in Australia thought better of the man for doing that, except clueless and bitchy Canberra insiders like Niki Savva. This person really has no idea, does she? How did readers bear to read her output for so long? Why did Costello put up with it, and her? How does an imperceptive clown like this not get shunted into early retirement?
A big job at the UN? With Australia's help? Doubtful.

There is extensive information available on the internet and elsewhere showing that Kevin Rudd runs his own race, doesn't consult, gets fixed on short-term stunts to the exclusion of wider issues, and can be a nightmare to work with.

If he became Australia's Ambassador to the UN he could be left to his own devices from there; if he were appointed toward the end of next year Labor could develop its own plans for the seat of Griffith. By then, the political landscape will have changed: Abbott will be terminal (see previous post), and the local LNP will either be poised for State government or tearing itself apart at not destroying Bligh when they had the chance. But all that is to get ahead of oneself.

It isn't just the first paragraph of Niki Savva's article that was bullshit. I thought they did well to get rid of Glenn Milne but in net terms the appointment of Savva doesn't enhance the federal politics capabilities of The Australian. We need good and sound foreign policy, and a journosphere that can critique it effectively. MSM organisations need to get rid of dead wood so that new talent can thrive: Savva, Colless, Sheridan and Franklin are surplus to requirements (but then so is Chris Mitchell, who is ultimately responsible for making such a call).

Australia should make better use of its former Prime Ministers while they are capable and willing to offer real assistance; this means the incumbents need to be big enough and secure enough to find roles for them. Australia should have a better foreign policy than it does, which again is down to the incumbents as well as the media. The flatulent response by the Lowy Institute toward the coup in Egypt shows that politicians and journalists can't outsource foreign policy analysis to that organisation. If I can find any specks of good foreign policy out there, given my own limitations, I'll let you know: but the first step has to involve chucking out the dross.


  1. Do I want to click that link to the Niki Savva piece? Nah, I'll give it a miss.
    I'm all for making former PMs earn their little perks. Should be more of it.

  2. what did you think of the pm being ambushed by the the assage incident.
    my opinon of the abc is low now its lower than it can go.

  3. Nikk Savva is hopeless!
    What more can be said?

  4. Savva is so nasty that her judgment about people and situations is pretty much shot.

    Anon1: "ambushed"? A citizen asked a question of the PM, end of. Go back 5 years and they would have served Terry Hicks up to Howard.

  5. Hillbilly Skeleton16/3/11 8:47 am

    Don't forget, Andrew, we in NSW will probably be getting an overload of Ms Savva after March 26. Her husband, Vincent Woolcock, will probably end up being BOF's COS. So, The Daily Terror will probably be engaging her services to keep in BOF's good books, I predict.
    A tangential comment about Ms Savva comes via the old saying: 'You end up getting the face you deserve.' :)
    They've all been arrogant bastards in the main recently, and good luck to any current female PM trying to wrangle them.
    How about Keating as a Roving Ambassador for Indigenous Affairs so as to fix up the problems you have identified that Jenny Macklin has caused? ;)

  6. Hillbilly Skeleton16/3/11 8:53 am

    FYI from PB:
    'Andrew Elder is a very good blogger. Been following him for years. His anti-Abbott rants are pure gold.

    He is a bloody good music journo too. I discovered REM through him back in the day.

    It’s a shame he votes Liberal'

  7. HS: Surprised if Vince Woolcock becomes COS. Even more surprised if Keating took any sort of labour-intensive role that took him far from Elizabeth Bay.

    The most surprising thing was having been a "music journo", let alone a good one. I found out about REM from ABC's 'Rock Arena'. Apart from state politics I haven't voted Liberal this century.

  8. Great piece. But I hope you stole the Australian rather than bought it.

    The internal labor leaking against Rudd is hilarious. A lot of the labor hacks must truly despise him because every time they look at him they have to face the fact that their decision to depose him was the most moronic decision in Australian political history and almost put them in opposition. Yet every time they turn on the TV they see Rudd, Foreign Minister, flouncing about. Keep it up Kev - you're killing them. They'll be jumping off buildings soon.

  9. Neither: I read it online. If Labor can't use Rudd effectively that's their problem.

  10. At least Niki Savva claimed ownership. The Australian seem to be producing a lot of opinion pieces with no author attached.

  11. The above comment was published for the irony value alone.