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Rudd: Evatt with a Blackberry

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8 March 2011 11:26

Watching Kevin Rudd run produces awe and the odd moment of amazement.

Australia's Foreign Minister is not quite a force of nature. He can be stopped, as the Labor caucus so dramatically demonstrated last year. Yet Rudd runs a race driven by prodigious energy and will. The intensity is undoubted. It is just the intent that isn't always obvious.

The Middle East drama has been multilateral heaven for Rudd. His productivity in talking to the media has been impressive, but it pales against his constant contact by face and phone with other foreign ministers.

As Tom Hyland wrote on Sunday, the Foreign Minister 'hasn't stopped moving or talking. He hasn't met a microphone or camera he hasn't liked: in the past month he's given three dozen media interviews. Mr Rudd is 10 days and four countries into his second trip, with three or four stops to go. This is Kevin 747, 24/7...to Mr Rudd, this blur of movement is essential when you are a middle power with global interests but limited influence'.

Julia Gillard, in Washington, is on her Foreign Minister's turf. She may just find that the trouble with a foreign minister who blows thought bubbles is that, sometimes, the string of the resulting policy balloon ends up in the hands of the leader. Some in Washington might want to ask the Prime Minister about Rudd's advocacy of a no-fly zone over Libya, using the language of that old US question about actually having a dog in the fight.

Gillard is in the US to talk up the 60th anniversary of the ANZUS alliance, so she might be in the mood to ponder the Australian experience of prime ministers handling forceful foreign ministers.

The Hawke relationship with Hayden isn't much use. Hawke knew his own mind on foreign policy. He had the firepower to rein in the Queenslander he'd deposed as leader and then made Foreign Minister when, for instance, Hayden mused about using the US alliance as a bargaining chip in pursuit of disarmament goals. The foreign policy discussions between Hawke and Hayden were a contest between equals.

One of the habits shared by Gareth Evans and Alexander Downer was how hard they worked to harmonise their efforts with their prime ministers. Both Evans and Dower were vigorous and ambitious, but both usually knew exactly how far they could push their most important diplomatic relationship – with the prime minister.

None of the above describes the state of play between Gillard and Rudd. The unknowns swamp the knowns. The understanding is hardly even tacit.

The closest parallel for the way Rudd is playing the game is with the performances of Percy Spender and Bert Evatt. This is elite company, but hints at the high-wire element in the act. In seeking to create ANZUS, Spender pushed aside Menzies' qualms about an alliance built on 'jelly'. Not least of the Spender achievements was to rush through the Australian military commitment to the Korean war against his leaders doubts. One of the great moments of Oz foreign minister fait accompli was the phone call to Menzies — on board a ship sailing from England to the US — to inform Ming that the Australian military was off to Korea.

For Prime Ministers Curtin and Chifley, Bert Evatt was their version of an unguided multilateral missile. Imagine the even greater international impact Evatt could have achieved with a Blackberry and ready access to a jet. Evatt had his own power base in the Labor caucus. By contrast, Menzies was able to dispatch Spender to Washington as ambassador at the earliest opportunity. As Gillard admires the splendid Australian residence in Washington, the Spender solution might appeal — but only when the numbers in the House of Representatives are less perilous.

One of the many ways the Rudd relationship with his leader is so unusual is that if The Kevin blows up and resigns, causing a by-election, the Government totters on the edge of extinction. Like Malcolm Turnbull on the other side of the chamber, Rudd has decided to stick around and be as useful as possible. Both no doubt harbour the conviction that their parliamentary colleagues will eventually come to their senses and turn back to the spurned leader.

The chance of any Rudd resurrection is far distant. For now, look upon his work rate, if not his works, and marvel. 

Photo by Flickr user Laughing Squid

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