There has been much comment on Kevin Rudd’s careful shadowing of the policies of the Howard government, apart from some carefully nuanced departures mainly in the area of vision. This testifies to the success of four Howard governments in delivering Australians a period of unprecedented prosperity and trouble free international standing.
This is more remarkable for having been achieved at a time when Australia’s traditional Anglo-American allies have encountered a series of difficulties and a steady deterioration in global authority. A forthcoming book by the Tokyo based Eamonn Fingleton, In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in an Age of Chinese Hegemony, suggests things are not going to become easier.
The potentially hostile climate for Australia has included the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the dot.com bust, the American misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq and now a threatened implosion of the US economy and its global financial authority. Even in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the Australian government has attracted popular disfavour, Howard has been remarkably successful in minimising Australian exposure and casualties, although few in Australia have remarked on this.
Indeed, over the past half century, long serving Liberal Party Prime Ministers have been most responsible for Australia’s Lucky Country self-image and the sense of a right to a relaxed and comfortable existence. Today, however, there seems to be a growing, if unspoken, sense in the electorate that the nation needs a greater sense of explicit purpose and vision, which Kevin Rudd has used most effectively, without ruffling feathers with any hint of more challenging times ahead.
The problem for Rudd, however, will be in matching Howard’s impressive practical achievements. Even more difficult may be the task of avoiding the pitfalls that tripped up another youthful, visionary, assertively Christian, Labour Party leader, Tony Blair in Great Britain. Blair proved much less effective than Howard in managing and mitigating the pressures mounted within the Anglo-American world by its trouble-prone leader, the United States.
The Australian media has been kind to the Labour Party leader in shunning any serious evaluation of his record in running the Queensland Government. He was unquestionably the most powerful bureaucrat under Premier Wayne Goss, who effectively lost power after only one term. Rudd has no doubt matured in the interim. Moreover, no one could fault his purpose, resolution and mastery of the Australian political psyche in pursuit of the ultimate position of political authority in Australia.
Yet, his much advertised mid-year visit to China, ostensibly to focus Chinese attention on the problems of climate change, failed to eventuate and was conveniently forgotten. This appears to have been because his prospective hosts were less impressed than some Australians with his political rhetoric. John Howard, with his surprisingly successful, if discreet and low key, China and Asian policies, has learnt to avoid such missteps. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that Rudd will also be a fast learner in such matters.
A new Prime Minister may nevertheless prove vulnerable in the complex and fast evolving international military, political and economic environment of the early 21st Century. John Howard has been a remarkable leader in winning recognition as a staunch US ally while preserving, defending and advancing independent Australian positions, whether in the deployment of Australian troops or in the evolution of Australian political and economic relations with China and other parts of Asia. His evident enthusiastic embrace of an intimate friendship with President Bush has earned him favours that have greatly benefited Australia.
Kevin Rudd may be a better man to manage relations with a new President but that has yet to be demonstrated. Moreover, as recently published information has made clear, the leaders of smaller countries, including countries as large as the United Kingdom, can come under relentless pressure from the US to conform with its needs. Of course, Australian interests have long resided with America and the Australian electorate shows little tolerance for aspiring leaders, like Mark Latham, who neglect to show an understanding of the imperatives of the US alliance. It would be troubling, however, were a new Prime Minister’s lack of relevant experience to leave him wrong footed in the difficult times that may lie ahead.
As America seeks solutions to its vulnerability in the Middle East and Central Asia, to the threat of bankruptcy for many areas of its economic and financial system, and to the problems associated with the decline of the US dollar as the international reserve currency, American allies will be pressured to support the leader of the Western world. It is not clear that the Mandarin speaking Rudd will be as well equipped as Howard to manoeuvre to advantage in what could prove to be a treacherous world. While it may seem counterintuitive to argue that Howard and Costello could prove better equipped than Rudd to simultaneously preserve Australia’s key traditional alliance and build a new and deep alliance with America’s emerging rival, China, this is a possibility that needs to be the subject of more serious reflection by media and academia.
There are many layers of reality operating in China and humility, durability and resilience are essential qualities in working with the resurgent Middle Kingdom. Whether Rudd displays these qualities at a higher level than Howard will likely determine his success or failure. He may exceed Howard and articulate to the Australian people, in a manner that Howard has failed to do, the political and cultural realities of Australia’s future in the Asian region. Or he may yield to excess in defending threatened certainties from an imperial past and self-destruct like Tony Blair. Unfortunately showcasing his Christianity and saying little or nothing on the campaign trail about his assumed expertise in Chinese language and culture does little to clarify these issues, even if it does show a Howard-like caution and capacity to disguise and dismiss issues that may unsettle or trouble the electorate.
It may be events beyond his control that determine whether Prime Minister Rudd leads Australia into a challenging future with a sense of purpose or fails to accommodate and manage the trials of an abrupt decline of Anglo-American power. The disappearance of the certainties that have defined much of the 200 years of Australian history would sorely test any national leader. In addressing such contingencies John Howard offers a much better model than Tony Blair.