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Lu Kewens Go-To Palace

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COMMENTS

29 April 2010 08:52

One gauge of an Australian Government's international hopes and fears is in the foreign policy institutions it creates at the Australian National University.

Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers have a history of marking their era with think tanks, centres and institutes at the ANU. In the space of two days, Kevin Rudd has done the ANU trick twice. He  launched the new National Security College and announced the creation of the Australian Centre on China in the World.

The history of such governmental creations at the ANU suggests both bodies should have reasonable life spans. One exception was the Peace Research Centre founded by Bill Hayden when he was Foreign Minister. The Centre's focus on disarmament and peace issues helped Hayden's strategy to protect the government on the left, both within the Party and the electorate. Peace carried too much Labor baggage when political power changed hands — Alexander Downer severed the Foreign Affairs funding for the Centre and it went to a peaceful end.

What the Minister takes he can also give. Downer was partial to ANU building. The Foreign Minister put in the money to create and run both the Centre for Democratic Institutions and the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy. These reflected Downer's personal beliefs, policy concerns and thinking about what might help Australia promote its interests in the region.

Kevin Rudd, then, is following a familiar path with his ANU building. What does it tell us about current fashions in Canberra and the Prime Minister's thinking?

The National Security College is yet another expression of the counter-terrorism edifice that has risen in Canberra since 2001. The jihadist threat has funded an impressive expansion of institutions such as ASIO and the Federal Police. And the heart (or brain, anyway) of the national security endeavour is now firmly implanted in the Prime Minister's Department.

In line with the Rudd's strange habit of doing jobs-for-the-Liberal-boys, the founding head of the Security College is Michael L'Estrange, who first made his mark in Canberra swinging an axe for John Howard. L'Estrange's intellect and experience saw him score the rare double of being appointed secretary of DFAT by both Liberal and Labor Governments. He is a bipartisan natural for the College. This continues the Rudd strategy on national security — adopt what John Howard did and drive it in the same direction. Safe politics and safe policy.

The China creation is obviously much closer to Rudd's heart. It, too, can expect bipartisan support. But it's hard to imagine Howard or Downer ever wanting to give the ANU even more money to think about China. And Rudd's world's-best aspirations for his new ANU baby ensure it won't limp along on chump change.

The Howard mantra about China was cautious and utterly pragmatic. Howard's interest was to keep bilateral relations stable and productive so that trade could keep going gangbusters. Australia would cling ever closer to the US alliance and embrace the China market. It was a neat balancing trick and a productive formula: minimise differences with Beijing and get on with business.

Even if he wanted to, Kevin Rudd could not structure his thinking about China so tightly. The China Centre is a reflection of Rudd's life as much as an expression of Australia's future interests. Rudd quoted Geremie Barmé on the need to create a New Sinology:

The Australian Government's aspiration is to make this centre the pre-eminent global institution for the integrated understanding of contemporary China in all its dimensions - and for the study of contemporary China's regional and global engagement....In short, the Government's intention is to build over time the global go-to place for the analysis of the continued rise of China in all of its complexity.

Perhaps that can be the nickname for the China Centre: Lu Kewens Go-To Palace.

Photo of the Hedley Bull Centre courtesy of ANU.