LIKE an Energizer Bunny, Kevin Rudd just refuses to give up. Last week, he told reporters in Washington that he would resign as Australia's foreign minister. Sensing that Rudd was out to grab his old job back, Prime Minister Julia Gillard - who had deposed him as premier in a party coup in 2010 - challenged him to a leadership poll.
Last Monday, she emerged the winner. Rudd consigned himself to the backbench and no longer sits in the Cabinet.
The banishment into exile is understandable - and should be welcomed. After all, Rudd's challenge has sparked a civil war in the Labour Party - the best gift that the Liberal-National opposition could ask for. Granted, the former foreign minister enjoyed a meteoric rise to the highest office in the land. His story is that of a child from a struggling Queensland family who made good. Wonkish, with a cherubic-looking face, he was regularly mobbed by Australians at shopping malls across the country.
I was living in Canberra when Rudd ascended to the premiership in 2007, putting paid to 11 years of Liberal-National rule. My landlady gushed over Kevin, as many Australians called him. 'Kevin 07' was displayed on car bumpers and T-shirts across the capital.
But Rudd is a study in contradiction. His public persona stands in jarring contrast to his private side.
In 2010, veteran journalist David Marr published an award-winning essay titled "Power Trip: The Political Journey Of Kevin Rudd". He interviewed scores of people who had worked closely with the then leader. The conclusion: Rudd ran a dysfunctional government. He worked his bureaucrats to the bone but refused to sign anything on paper. One minister resorted to getting himself on the same flights as the then leader to get some face time.
The dysfunction was largely due to Rudd's inner rage, Marr surmised. "Rudd is driven by anger. It's the juice in the machine. He is a hard man because the anger is hidden by a public face, a diplomat's face... He's a politician with rage at his core, impatient rage."
Some supporters of Rudd contend that Gillard played a key role in his 2010 ouster. That is true. However, she was but only one among many Labour power brokers involved in that coup. In the run-up to the Monday contest, Gillard finally revealed what journalists like Marr have been saying all along - Rudd's government was plagued by "chaos and paralysis". "In my view, Kevin Rudd is an excellent campaigner," she said. "But government requires different skills. Government requires consistency, purpose, discipline, inclusion, consultation."
That was indictment enough.
In the final analysis, Rudd should never have challenged Gillard. He had flourished, and would have continued to flourish, as Australia's top diplomat. He could have learnt from Hillary Clinton. Formerly a fierce presidential rival to Barack Obama, she graciously accepted her appointment and is now a highly effective United States Secretary of State.
As for Rudd, his challenge has now left the Labour Party in a dilemma. It is true that many voters support him. But even if he had won Monday's contest, Labour's rank and file is not behind him. This leaves Gillard to take on opposition leader Tony Abbott, but her poll ratings are abysmal. More importantly, Rudd's departure as foreign minister will prove a loss for not only Australia, but also Asia.
The departure does not portend a significant change in Canberra's approach to Asia. But without Rudd, the region will see the loss of a reasoned and pragmatic contribution to what he once called a 'conversation' about Asia's growing alphabet soup of multilateral organisations.
Indeed, his proposal for a European Union-like Asia-Pacific Community could be said to be a working model for the East Asia Summit and the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting.
In 2009, Rudd trotted out what has essentially become a shared Asian approach to China's rise - regional countries would engage China, but to prepare for the event in which things go pear-shaped, they would keep the gunpowder dry. At a private meeting, Clinton had asked Rudd about how to deal with China. Calling himself a "brutal realist", he called for "multilateral engagement with bilateral vigour". If "everything goes wrong", the US has to be prepared to "deploy force", he added.
WikiLeaks' release of the discussion at the meeting stirred up some controversy, but Rudd's thesis is not rocket science. One has to look only at the way that the US has implemented its 'pivot' to Asia. Washington seeks to engage China, but it is keeping its options open in case such a strategy fails.
In one of his last appearances as Australia's foreign minister, Rudd also fashioned himself as a staunch advocate of China and Asia. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference last month, he chastised Europe for distancing itself from the growing economic clout of the Asian region.The Straits Times/ANN
Sunday, March 4, 2012
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