Government and governance, International relations | Australia, The World

29 July 2016

The Turnbull Government has done the nation a great disservice by putting a premature end to Kevin Rudd’s quest to become the next United Nations Secretary-General, writes Ramesh Thakur.

In a recent article in The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway described four ways in which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is living rent-free inside the head of the Democratic National Committee. As opposition leader, in February 2007 Kevin Rudd famously pledged to mess with John Howard’s mind – and kept his promise. It would appear that many Coalition MPs have still not managed to exorcise Rudd from their heads.

Hemingway recalled an anti-perspirant ad from the 1980s whose tagline was ‘Never let them see you sweat’. In one ad, fashion designer Donna Karan ends with: ‘Feeling tense is understandable. Looking tense is unfashionable!’ When it comes to the Turnbull cabinet’s refusal to even nominate Rudd for the post of United Nations Secretary-General (SG), we could add, ‘For a Government of Australia: acting tense is unpardonable’. The world has seen us sweat.

With cabinet split on the matter yesterday, the decision was left for the Prime Minister as a ‘captain’s call’. Turnbull’s decision adds to the litany of bad captain’s calls in recent years by successive prime ministers. The refusal is a sad and painful reminder of the Americanisation of Australian politics, in this case by injecting hyper-partisanship into a decision that should be made on national, and only national, considerations. We may well say we are demonstrating ‘good international citizenship’ in preferring to line up behind Helen Clark. Yet the fact is that Clark has been nominated and her (faltering) campaign is being strongly backed by her domestic political opponents. Once again, therefore, our Kiwi cousins show us how to conduct national affairs beyond the nation’s shores.

By contrast, from across the Pacific divide comes news that Trump has called on Russia to hack his opponent Hillary Clinton’s infamous trove of emails – subsequently claimed to have been act of sarcasm. And in the petulant refusal to nominate Rudd, we are parting from the civilised ways of Prime Minister John Key and sliding down towards the hyper-partisanship of our great and powerful protectors. This is especially distressing considering how Rudd had displeased many within his own party in appointing Liberal Party MPs – Brendan Nelson comes to mind – as ambassadors.

Would Rudd make a good Secretary-General? We’ll never know and more’s the pity. It seems almost certain that the rest of the world has little idea of the depth of dislike for Rudd among some Australians. It is just as clear that many Australians are equally unfamiliar with his continuing high international reputation for intellect, grasp of big picture policy interconnectedness (an absolutely essential qualification for being SG), intimate familiarity with the countries that count, and deep knowledge of the international system. His efforts in tackling the global financial crisis, getting the G20 off the ground, trying to manage climate change and the historic apology Australia’s Indigenous peoples are widely remembered and highly appreciated.

When Rudd became party and opposition leader, one Labor Party icon – national and international – told me that ‘Kevin has the sharpest policy brains of anyone in public life I have known’. Things did not exactly work out well for Rudd as PM. That is hardly a secret. But the decision for the next Secretary-General will not be made by Australians. Australia does not even get a vote on the matter. Only the 15 members of the UN Security Council – which presently includes New Zealand but not Australia – will get to vote. The real decision will be made by the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, UK, USA). All are more than capable of doing their own due diligence on Rudd’s qualifications, experience, temperament and suitability for the job.

They and the rest of the world will also make judgments on Australia as a nation. The government has cruelled Rudd’s chance of even being in the mix to be considered for the job, despite his known interest in the position and the public evidence that his candidacy would be credible and serious. The world will conclude that Australia is mean, petty and small-minded, not generous and big-hearted as we like to think of ourselves.

The Security Council has already conducted one informal straw poll last week. The results were contrary to what the Western – or at least the English-language Western – media had portrayed as the state of play. (The media’s ignorance and bias on UN affairs comes as no surprise to many of us.) Generally described as a frontrunner, Clark came sixth in a field of twelve. Argentina’s Susanna Malcorra, said to be favoured by Washington, came eighth. In a contest that too many journalists have mistakenly characterised as being the turn of Eastern Europe, the pole position was taken by former Portuguese PM and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres – a very competent and capable leader who, if he does become the next SG, would make me more optimistic for the UN than I have dared to be for many a year.

It’s early days yet. The process is already underway but has not gone so far as to rule out additional candidates. Unlike on most previous occasions, this year candidates do require formal nomination by governments. There is nothing to have stopped our government from acting as the Government of Australia, and not as a government for Coalition voters, and nominating Rudd. This would not have required Australia to invest substantial resources, time or effort into full-throated campaigning for Rudd. It would have meant the government merely enabled and facilitated his candidacy to proceed on his own skills, ability, and reputation. This is believed to have been Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s preference. The decision concerning her portfolio will diminish her authority – and she has been the one outstanding Coalition minister since 2013.

When the late Malcolm Fraser – the bête noir of Australia’s Labor Party for his role in the Whitlam Government’s dismissal – decided to make a run for the post of Commonwealth Secretary-General, the Hawke Government backed him and Gareth Evans was his campaign manager. When Evans expressed interest in a top UN post, the Howard Government supported him. That neither campaign was successful is irrelevant to the larger point encompassing the virtues of the tradition of bipartisan, national support for Australians seeking high international office.

For the first time in the UN’s 70-year history, a credible Australian candidate was interested in being considered for the world’s top diplomatic job. The Turnbull cabinet proved incapable of rising above petty party political opposition. That will be its international epitaph on this story.

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One Response

  1. Graham Douglas says:

    Agree. The Coalition Government did not seem to understand they were not the selection committee.

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Thakur, Ramesh. 2016. "Rolling Rudd (Again) - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.