The Rudd resumption
THE return of Kevin Rudd to the Labor leadership signals the return of a PM obsessed with the media and manipulating the daily message, coupled with manic work practices that alienate his colleagues and the public service.
We know all this from on-the-record statements of numerous senior Labor politicians, who have provided a rare insight into the inner workings of the first Rudd government from 2007 to June 2010 – with damning public assessments of his leadership style as recently as a fortnight ago.
In addition to his record of chaotic administration, one of Rudd’s chief failings first time around was his mismanagement of key international relationships.
As a former member of Australia’s diplomatic service, Rudd came to power with high expectations, particularly for the relationship with China, with Rudd speaking fluent Mandarin.
However when Rudd took his chaotic and non-consultative style of management to the international stage, those expectations were dashed.
The relationship with China was put under strain on his first visit to the country as PM when he gave a speech that included criticism of the Chinese government’s human rights record.
While the content of the speech was provocative in the eyes of the Chinese leadership, it was a direct affront for Rudd to raise such matters in front of a group of students before raising them directly with the nation’s leaders.
It was a serious breach of protocol that a skilled diplomat should have avoided.
This mistake was compounded with immature behaviour while in London of not wanting to be seated next to China’s ambassador to Britain, Madam Fu Ying, during a television interview, despite her being a former ambassador to Australia.
Rudd’s motivation appeared to be in response to criticism that he was too close to China. He must have concluded that he needed to be one seat further away to dispel such a perception!
These blunders paled into insignificance after he told journalists at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference that “Those Chinese f . . kers are trying to rat-f . . k us”.
His faux familiarity with journalists is no excuse for behaviour unbecoming a skilled diplomat – let alone one serving as Prime Minister.
Further consternation about Rudd’s international forays came in June 2008 when he gave a speech to a domestic audience revealing his plans to redraw the regional diplomatic and strategic architecture through the establishment of an “Asia Pacific Community” that would include the US, Japan, China, Australia, India, Indonesia and others.
Yet not one of these countries had been consulted, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was oblivious to the news.
To make matters worse, in his speech he admonished regional leaders for being too passive in the past: “We need to anticipate the historic changes in our region and seek to shape them, rather than simply reacting to them.”
Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa dismissed Rudd’s foolhardy foray into regional affairs as “another layer, an out-of-nowhere construction, not in concert, not in synergy with what we have”.
Twelve months later, Rudd was forced to back down, conceding in a speech in Singapore that “no one wants more meetings. There is no appetite for additional institutions.”
By that time Rudd had already achieved what is close to impossible by straining relations with the US. In an act of unbelievable stupidity, he leaked to the media a false version of a private conversation in 2008 between himself and president George Bush.
It was a crude and false attempt to portray the president as having lesser knowledge than Rudd did regarding the G20. This diplomatic gaffe drew a swift response from the US with confirmation that the official record was not consistent with the version of events given to the Australian media – which could only have come from Rudd or his office.
By mid-2009 Rudd turned his focus on Indonesian President Yudhoyono, publicly lecturing him in the middle of a crisis involving the Australian vessel ‘Oceanic Viking’, which had intercepted asylum-seekers and taken them to an Indonesian port.
A prescient warning came from a senior Indonesian foreign ministry official who said at the time, “This will be the last time we are helping Australia deal with its foreign refugee influx problem”.
Rudd’s insistence that Indonesia allow the ‘Oceanic Viking’ to dock was provocative because at no time did he acknowledge his role in weakening Australia’s border protection laws that directly led to the crisis.
Labor has tried to link a provision in last week’s communique from the Indonesia-Australia Leaders’ Meeting to the asylum-seeker policies of the Coalition, with its call for both parties to refrain from “unilateral action” that could cause difficulties to the other party.
As foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop astutely observed, Indonesia would have been only too keen to bind Rudd to such an arrangement, given his unilateral act in 2008 of unravelling the Howard government’s border protection measures. In addition, the communique was a result of Indonesia’s discussions with Rudd, not with Tony Abbott.
Rudd’s unilateral actions in changing laws and deactivating the people-smuggling trade has resulted in a severe crisis – including the deaths of perhaps a thousand people attempting the dangerous sea journey to Australia.
It would be reassuring to think that the Rudd of old has learned his lesson, but leopards like Rudd do not change their spots.
Rudd has picked up where he left off.
First was a statement highly critical of the British government: “If Mr Abbott adopts that (UK) approach, as he and his economic spokesmen have said they will, let me say this very bluntly: he will tip Australia into recession and bring about significant unemployment.”
Given the scale of the sovereign debt crisis in the UK and Europe, Rudd could have shown a little more diplomacy in his assessment of their policy responses.
He then made what commentators have rightly described as one of the most reckless statements by any PM when he claimed that the election of Abbott risked triggering military conflict with Indonesia. Overlooking his own past support for the Howard government’s policy of turning around boats when safe to do so, Rudd invoked the “konfrontasi”, when Australian soldiers were killed in a conflict with Indonesia over Malaysia in the 1960s.
Indonesia’s officials showed the tact Rudd clearly lacks with a polite rejection of any such scenario.
To give him credit, Rudd has thus far succeeded in manipulating the debate to keep the focus on Coalition border protection policy. However, this cannot be sustained and he soon must spell out workable solutions to the people-smuggling crisis that he has created.
The best predictor of future action and utterance is past performance. While Rudd remains Prime Minister, Australia and the international community can expect more damaging forays into foreign relations.
Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: an Alcoholic’s Journey’, is now available as an e-book.
The Weekend Australian July 13-14, 2013, Inquirer p 22