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Kevin Rudd mars our nation's image

By John Roskam - posted Monday, 30 March 2009

Australia needs more diplomats, says a report released by the Lowy Institute. It seems even Iceland has more overseas representatives than we do. Pity all of those Icelandic diplomats couldn't stop their country going bankrupt.

Some of Australia's diplomatic priorities could certainly be rearranged. One of the Rudd Government's first decisions was to create a new post of ambassador to the Vatican. But as the Lowy report points out, in India our diplomatic presence outside New Delhi is negligible. In China, Australia's representation is largely limited to the coastal cities.

At the moment though, if we are indeed short a few dozen ambassadors, that's probably a good thing. Given what's been happening lately, the less attention Australia attracts to itself, the better. We're hardly presenting a vision of an outward-looking and confident nation able to weather the storms of the economic crisis.


Two weeks ago the government announced it was cutting the intake of skilled migrants. On that Wednesday it announced it would jail company executives who broke new golden-handshake rules. There's also every likelihood that the government will say no to new Chinese investment in the resources sector. And in the middle of the most difficult business conditions of a lifetime, two of the government's major policy priorities are the introduction of 600 pages of legislation to repeal WorkChoices and 400 pages of legislation to create a carbon trading scheme.

No matter how many extra trade-promotion staff we hire around the world, their task is near hopeless.

Instead of a prime minister intent on saving jobs we've got a philosopher-in-residence at The Lodge. His priorities are somewhat perplexing. He's issued an edict directing that Australia's international representatives get publicity for his 7,700-word diatribe assailing neo-liberalism. And it seems they've had success. Parisians would have enjoyed sipping their cafe au lait while reading Kevin Rudd's critique of "extreme capitalism" in Le Monde.

The Lowy report is probably right, and Australia's diplomats are overstretched. But the reason they're overstretched is that the Prime Minister has them scurrying about on his personal pet projects. The fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade appears to have acceded to the Prime Minister's edict to get international media coverage for his essay is a testament to how supine the Canberra public service has become. The essay is a partisan and political attack on the Liberal Party. If the Labor Party wanted to distribute the Prime Minister's essay, there'd be no problem, but the federal public service shouldn't be doing the work of the ALP.

The irony is that regardless of what the Prime Minister believes (or says he believes), Australia has a relatively well-managed, well-regulated, well-functioning economy. Unfortunately this is the not the message the Prime Minister has chosen to communicate to the rest of the world.

The suggestion that Australia should have more diplomats will be music to the ears of the Prime Minister as he pursues his dream of a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. If the cost of the bid were only financial in the form of some additional foreign service salaries and some extra air fares, then the bid might be worthwhile. But the price we're paying is not only monetary - it's moral.


Already Australia is making foreign policy compromises, and there'll be more compromises to come.

For fear of losing African votes, Australia has largely stayed silent on the issue of Zimbabwe. And while the US and Canada have pulled out of a United Nations conference on racism to be held next month because it will give a platform to anti-Semitism, Australia still plans to attend. Presumably the calculation has been made that if we want to get onto the Security Council, we can't afford to be seen to be snubbing UN events - no matter how bad those events are.

Global influence is not the product of the number of embassies a country has. Belgium has more overseas posts than we do, but there's no evidence we're losing the fight to have our voice heard to the Belgians.

One way to get global influence is to say something worthwhile. Lately the Prime Minister has said (and written) a great deal. Whether anything he's said is worth saying is debatable.

And that's the verdict of the rest of the world too. Just recently the Financial Times listed the 50 people who'll shape the future of capitalism. Kevin Rudd wasn't on the list.

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First published in the Australian Financial Review on March 20, 2009.

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John Roskam is executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs.

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