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The Kevin gets Foreign

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COMMENTS

13 September 2010 10:21

Australia builds on its strange habit of making discarded leaders the Foreign Minister.

When Bill Hayden (above) and Alexander Downer (below) got the job, it was consolation for graciously surrendering the role of Opposition Leader. Each stepped down without forcing the party to vote. Kevin Rudd takes the tradition to a new height. He gets to run most of the Casey Building as consolation for having to vacate The Lodge. And The Kevin, too, did not force the party to vote him out. Going graciously is an apparent precondition for joining the ranks of the ex-leader Foreign Ministers.

The Hayden and Downer cases tell much about the traps and possibilities facing Rudd. Both Hayden and Downer were more than competent foreign ministers. They were successful. That success was achieved by two very different men who had to put aside deep personal hurt and help the leader who replaced them.

Hayden and Downer were intelligent, professional politicians. Each had to add one extra achievement: extraordinary discipline. No bitterness could show. No serious sniping was possible. Deep loyalty to party meant that the interests of the government and new leader had to be served.

Hayden had risen to be Treasurer amid the shambles of the Whitlam Government. As leader, he took Labor to the brink of victory on the eve of the election. Call him a discarded rather than a failed leader. For Labor, Hayden swallowed much, including the death of his own leadership when an election win was there for the taking. He kept the bitterness subdued, only venting occasionally with a shaft of sharp, dark wit.

As Governor-General, Hayden remarked one day on returning to Yarralumla that he had just been to 'a fete worse than death'.

Serving Hawke was no fete, and sometimes that fate hung heavy on Hayden. The sarcasm about Hawke was not totally suppressed, but it was controlled. In one of his dispatches to the Queen, the vice-regal representative wrote of watching TV footage of mothers holding up babies to be blessed by Hawke. Hayden reported to his sovereign that the look on the mothers' faces seemed to be saying, 'Look son, at the great man – and watch his feet. They don't even touch the ground when he is walking.'

Downer was a vastly different character, but one similarity was his embrace of party. The son of a Menzies-era Minister, Downer said he was born to the Liberal Party. His eventual deep relationship with John Howard in government was built on their shared love of the party and the similarities of their political views, if not their personalities.

So is Rudd prepared to bury the hurt to serve a Labor Party that brutally cast him aside' Will he obey the deputy who knifed him' The crucial assumption is that Rudd, like Hayden and Downer, is ready to serve the Prime Minister who beheaded him.

The previous Australian Prime Minister who accepted a cabinet post after being deposed was John Gorton. His short period as Defence Minister ended in flames because Gorton still assumed the prerogatives of a leader. Gorton was soon out of Cabinet onto the back bench, and eventually out of the party.

If Rudd avoids the Gorton precedent, he has the different operating models offered by Downer and Hayden to deal with the leader. Downer sought to get as close as possible to Howard, and by the end was probably the Prime Minister's 'best mate' in Cabinet (if mateship can ever be applied to Cabinet).

Hayden sought to stay out of Hawke's orbit as much as possible. In his autobiography, Hayden said he rarely sought entree to the Prime Minister: 'I proceeded on the basis that if I restricted entry requests to the barest minimum, based on a clear and pressing need to see him, then the restraint would be acknowledged and entry provided when sought. Thus it worked.'

The working reconciliation with Hawke reached to the point that Hayden, as the G-G, suggested that Hawke, after being deposed as leader by Keating, would be a fine candidate for Secretary-General of the UN. If Rudd and Gillard ever go in that direction, it will be Rudd who wants the UN job.

Downer and Hayden illustrate different dimensions of what happens when a foreign minister goes out in public to oppose a prime minister. As recounted in a previous column, Downer biggest public thrust against Howard was over the Prime Minister's response to the challenge posed by Pauline Hanson. Downer, though, had support from other key ministers, including the deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer, and moved when the political danger of Hansonism was starting to become apparent.

Hayden went public with the idea of using the US bases in Australia as leverage in support of Australia's position on nuclear disarmament. Hayden, in Geneva, felt the full force of Hawke's blast from Canberra. It was all over quickly and the Hawke victory was clear.

Rudd will be able to trade on his deep international knowledge and expertise. He will be able to travel almost at will, as long as he keeps an eye on the Parliamentary sessions. Gillard ran a remorselessly domestic election campaign. Her governing interests will be equally domestic.

The new Foreign Minister will have plenty of scope if he can emulate the discipline and focus of Hayden and Downer. That discipline must extend to ensuring that, when he backgrounds journalists, the focus is on foreign policy, not Gillard's performance. Damaging Cabinet leaks lead towards the fate of Defence Minister Gorton.

There is one final bit of the Hayden-Downer model that is central but still to be tested. Both discarded leaders eventually came to some internal peace with the idea that they would never be Prime Minister. That was the basis on which they could build some working relationship with the leader who deposed them. Can Rudd make that internal settlement'

Many in Canberra still question whether Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd share a secret belief: eventually the party will come to its senses and come back to me.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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