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Rudd: time for a reality check

By Bruce Haigh - posted Friday, 4 April 2008

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has done well in the United States. He has come across as friendly, open, balanced, intelligent and articulate; the antithesis of his predecessor, who gave a very creditable impression of fawning every time he set foot in the US and whose public presentations sounded like a yard of pump water.

Rudd’s middle power statements and focus on the UN were timely and well overdue, but he should be on guard against the Blair syndrome: the propensity to talk at length under water without delivering. Not only is it annoying, it is dangerous, as expectations are raised which might not be fulfilled. An impression conveyed of a polished and socially correct version of whatever it takes.

Rudd’s announcement that Australia would seek a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2013-14 was, in my opinion, precipitate.


The Howard government used up much international credit accumulated over the previous 30 years. Fixed, as we are, on good news and praise, this reality has not been conveyed by public servants (who were fearful of the consequences of conveying bad news) and by the media who, by and large, wilted in front of Howard’s bullying. There are good people of influence in many countries who are waiting to see how Australia will reposition itself and they will be guided by the substance of real achievement.

While there have been some welcome changes to bring Australia back into line on domestic and international law relating to refugees, 4,000 Australian islands remain excised from Australia including Christmas Island which houses a new and large refugee detention centre. Australia maintains a policy of turning back refugee boats and continues an unhealthy relationship with Indonesia over the issue of refugees.

Rudd’s Sorry Statement, while welcome, still needs the passage of time to demonstrate practical change and the restoration of fairness in the workplace has yet to take place, although no doubt it will. Before rushing to announce his intention to seek a place on the Security Council, Rudd should have done some of the hard yards to restore Australia’s tarnished reputation in the world.

As a case in point, under Howard, Australia was one of a handful of countries to consistently vote with the United States against Palestine.

If a UN vote were held this year to elect two non-permanent members to the Security Council, with Finland and Luxembourg already contenders, Australia would pick up no votes in Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries after Tampa. Australia would pick up no votes in the Middle East and few if any in Africa.

Pressure and pressure alone might secure a couple of votes in the Pacific but India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Burma would not vote for Australia. Pakistan would be hard to predict. Sri Lanka, Thailand, South Korea and Brunei would probably vote for Australia and Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam might also but then again they might not. The numbers are significantly against Australia. A lot of work will need to be done to significantly rebuild respect for Australia.


Rudd rushed the gun in order to put some early substance in his middle power statement. It was precipitate when set against the background of Australia’s current standing in the international community. Rudd, more than Howard, should be aware that smiles and back slapping in public do not necessarily translate into nice words behind closed doors.

Rudd might look to practical measures to begin the process of international confidence building. He might look to sponsoring and giving substance to a UN Institute on Water and Alternative Energy and a Regional Council on the treatment and elimination of AIDS, TB and Malaria.

He should consider taking the issue of Afghanistan to the UN. The war is unwinnable. Beyond the continued application of military force the US has few proposals. A middle power initiative could suggest talks with the Taliban through the UN. Australia has mooted the possibility of Pakistan undertaking contact with the Taliban with the purpose of curtailing their activities across the border from safe havens in Pakistan into Afghanistan. Pakistan is already engaged in contact with the Taliban, perhaps Australia might assist a process which brings this contact under the auspices of the UN.

Whether intended or not, Rudd sent quite a strong message to Japan by not including them on his extended overseas visit. Whatever is said to the contrary they are likely to believe it was deliberate. They will not believe, along with the Indians, that a person of Kevin Rudd’s intelligence and background could have unwittingly delivered such a snub. They are unlikely to believe that he acted without considered advice.

Under pressure Rudd has now scheduled a visit to Japan in June. However the cold shoulder given Japan is not such a bad thing. The relationship is basically sound and no great harm will come from it, but if handled properly it might be used to indicate just how annoyed many people are in Australia over Japanese whaling in southern waters.

It is not so much the whaling, although that is bad enough, it has rather been the unwillingness on the part of the Japanese to negotiate and discuss that has stuck in the throat of many Australians. It indicates a lack of respect and an arrogance that is not useful or constructive in any long term relationship, particularly when there are other friends in the neighbourhood.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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