Was Rudd out of his depth?

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(Image via @johndory49)

Andrew Elder discusses Turnbull's decision to reject Kevin Rudd's bid for the position of UN secretary-general.

COVERAGE by the Australian media of Kevin Rudd’s quixotic campaign for the position of UN secretary-general has been poor.

It grossly inflated his chances of actually winning. Rudd’s campaign for the job relies on a number of assumptions that should not only be questioned but answered by those who genuinely want the guy to succeed.

What follows here is my opinion and my responses to standard themes in the public debate. Nobody wants to engage on the issue of basic competence, from which all else flows. I find that disappointing, particularly among people who see the consequences of its absence up close.

Kevin Rudd should not have been encouraged in his ambition for the UN secretary general role — not by the government or anyone else.

Rudd could not manage his own office, or his Cabinet. He obsessed over trivia while big and important decisions were delayed or put on hold. The press gallery, who saw all of this up close but avoided actual policy coverage, were surprised when it all ground to a halt in June 2010, rather than regarding it as inevitable.

His performance during the gloal financial crisis and the apology to the Stolen Generations of Indigenous Australians were his equivalents of John Howard's gun buyback: moments of shining statesmanship amid a gloom of mediocre policy and wasted opportunities. Rudd was a junior diplomat whose ambitions exceeded his abilities. He should never have been prime minister. He must not be regarded by anyone, within the Australian government or beyond it, as a suitable candidate for UN secretary-general.

Mind you, I’ve been wrong before.

The UN secretary-general

This debate isn’t about whether we respect the office of prime minister, or even how Australia ill-uses the skills and experience built up in the office. It’s about the role of secretary-general of the UN. There are a number of candidates for the office. The Australian government should consider two perspectives on each:

  • Who would be best for the UN as a whole (as we see it)?
  • Who would be most inclined to act in Australia’s best interests?

All the declared candidates seem well-disposed to Australia. Former NZ PM Helen Clark would probably be the most familiar; any snide quips in support of her country’s sporting teams must be balanced against her many strong words and deeds in support of trans-Tasman trade and cooperation and shared sacrifice in battle. None have a record of real antipathy toward us.

There have been eight secretaries-general of the UN. None had led government before taking the role. None acted against Australia’s interests — except, perhaps, Kurt Waldheim (1972-81) who concealed his Nazi activities in World War II.

Having an Australian UN secretary-general would accrue prestige and benefits to Australia

Would it?

If Peru accrued any prestige following the term of Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, it is hard to discern. Likewise, the lasting impact of Trygve Lie’s term to Norway is unclear. Attributing Egypt’s shambolic politics in any way to Boutros Boutros-Ghali would be slanderous. And the national nightmare from which Myanmar is trying to awake had little to do with U Thant. Korea’s role in the world would not have been diminished had Ban-Ki Moon taken another role.

Let’s look at another “Aussie Kev”, Kevan Gosper – what did he bring to his senior role at the International Olympic Committee? 

Australia would disgrace itself to advocate half-heartedly for a candidate we knew was not up to this job.


Yes. There will come a time when Australia produces an eminently suitable candidate for UN secretary-general but Kevin Rudd is not that candidate.

Remember how hard the government lobbied for a seat on the UN Security Council (and how the then opposition jeered at the expense and the cocktail-circuit manoeuvring involved)? Do you think the government would or should go in as hard for a candidate with known flaws who may not win anyway?

It is not petty to thwart his nomination. It would be petty to promote a national for no reason other than he’s one of ours.

But the UN would filter him out anyway

Would they? Why bother participating in such a fraud? We’d look silly for backing a non-starter for parochial, bloody-minded reasons — and if he won he’d be a disaster. Talk about a lose-lose situation. If we ever put up a decent candidate they would be tainted by Rudd’s folly.

B-but former Prime Minister …

There is no obligation to let former prime ministers indulge in follies of their own. There is no obligation for incumbents to do so either.

Rudd’s position is like that of Malcolm Fraser in 1986, when the position of secretary-general of the Commonwealth came up and he expressed an interest. Now regarded as the model for decisive, reform-minded government, the then Hawke government was riven over the appointment of Fraser to the job. The government looked half-hearted in its support for Fraser and someone else got the job. The Commonwealth and Australia’s role in it, were unaffected.

It would be a terrible precedent to insist that every former prime minister deserves the full backing of the Australian government toward any end on which he or she may have set their heart.

Rudd was a former ambassador

No he wasn’t. He was a junior diplomat in Beijing (when it was a less important post to Australia than it is now), and in Stockholm. At least half a dozen members of Howard’s cabinet held ambassadorial rank and none of them should be UN secretary general either.

Rudd was a former foreign minister

So was Alexander Downer. See above.

Aussie Aussie Aussie!

'“My country, right or wrong,” is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober”.​'
~ G K Chesterton

At the end of this week, the Games of the XXXI Olympiad begin in Rio. Paint your face green and gold and cheer yourself hoarse if you must. Choosing a secretary-general for the United Nations is not like a sporting contest.

You have to rise above partisanship

Yes, you do. You have to focus on the job of UN secretary-general, for which Rudd is unsuited. A bad Labor prime minister really is no better than a bad Liberal Prime Minister in that regard. If it makes you feel any better, John Howard or Tony Abbott or Christine Milne would also have made terrible UN Secretaries-General. Even nominating them would have been absurd.

If Labor had won the election, it would have been a mistake for Bill Shorten to nominate Rudd. Tanya Plibersek, who had enhanced her reputation as a minister by pointing out Rudd’s failures as a leader, looked silly making a case for Rudd.

You’re throwing in your lot with the Liberal Right

So much for transcending partisanship.

The Liberal Right are gainsaying whatever Turnbull and Julie Bishop want. If they want a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, the Liberal Right want a plebiscite they’ll ignore anyway. If Bishop (who was the recipient of Rudd’s anti-Gillard leaking) had decided against Rudd, they would have backed him. They’re sooking.

It’s a nihilistic, paint-it-black approach to policymaking, and – as with Rudd in 2010-13 – the press gallery aren’t calling it out. This impoverishes the national debate and even fails the horse-race aspect of political journalism.

Turnbull looks craven and weak

Not because he decided not to embarrass his government and the nation by half-heartedly backing an inadequate candidate. Plenty of sticks to beat him with but this isn't one of them.

I don’t want a public debate where opposition to my stance disintegrates. I want a public debate that is well informed. The debate on Kevin Rudd as UN secretary general overstated both Rudd’s capability and likelihood of getting the job and insulted us by not revisiting what he was actually like as prime minister. If those who observe politics up close don’t know and can’t articulate it, what hope do the rest of us have in making the most appropriate decision at election time?

You can read more by Andrew on his blog Press Gallery Reform and follow him on Twitter @awelder.

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