‘A tall poppy is cut down’; Gillard could bloom awhile


Strange things happen to Australian prime ministers. One (Harold Holt, 1966-67) disappeared while swimming near a Melbourne beach; speculation says he may have been eaten by a shark.

Another (John Gorton, 1968-71) willingly voted himself out of office when some colleagues turned against him.

Then there was Gough Whitlam (1972-75), dismissed by the U.K. queen-appointed governor general in Canberra.

Now we have the high-flying, internationally famous Kevin Rudd, suddenly being replaced by an internationally unknown 46-year-old woman of humble Welsh family origins, Julia Gillard.

Rudd’s demise and Whitlam’s dismissal were reminders that it is not just Japan that likes to dump prime ministers arbitrarily. Both men were guilty of the ultimate Australian (and Japanese) sin of losing favor with popular opinion (the media), although in Whitlam’s case, some complex legal wrangling was also involved.

By chance, both Whitlam and Rudd also had a China connection. Whitlam, whose landslide victory in 1972 ended a long period of conservative rule, came to power on the wave of publicity following the 1971 pingpong opening to China. Some of us involved in that opening ended up with positions in his administration.

While we admired his dynamism, we also saw close up how his authority was undercut by his domineering attitude, dislike of party factions, inattention to detail and weak grasp of economic policy (he let academics talk him into free trade policies when key industries badly needed protection). Humiliating dismissal came just three years later.

Rudd, a former diplomat, also benefited from China euphoria — this time from China’s heavy purchases of Australian resources beginning in the 1990s. Much earlier, back in the late ’50s, Canberra had begun grudgingly to train its diplomats in Chinese (I was the first). But it was refusing to send them to China, then seen as the source of all evil. So I ended up in Japan. Rudd, who followed me many years later, went to Canberra’s Beijing Embassy where he gained the fluency for which he is rightly praised.

But fluency in Chinese does not a politician make. By yet another coincidence, Rudd was also raised in the same hardscrabble outskirts of north Brisbane as I was, close to the base for the rightwing, anti-immigrant Pauline Hansen political movement of the ’90s.

Early in life, both of us discovered Australia’s gut: a “she’ll-be-right-Mate” anti-intellectual conservatism. I was to run into it headfirst in the crude 1960s Australian fear of China and the disinterest in the horrors of the Vietnam war that Canberra had helped encourage.

Rudd was lucky to come later and join the vigorous Queensland branch of the Australian Labor Party, where he deservedly won the reputation for the thoroughness and hard work that was to take him into federal politics and, eventually, to the prime ministry in a landslide election.

Like Whitlam, though, Rudd might have ignored too long the factions, trade unions and personal connections so important in Australian leftwing politics. He, too, was dumped ignominiously, this time by his own party.

Australians can easily turn against people they see as too prominent. In Japan it is called beating down the nail that protrudes. In Australia it is called cutting down the tall poppies (my theory is that a history of island isolation helps create these similarities).

Striding the globe to conferences on everything from reducing carbon emissions to regulating world financial policies, Rudd might have made himself famous internationally. His crusade to save the world from global warming might have made him the darling of the environmentalists. But, at home, conservatives were grumbling and factions were plotting.

On carbon emissions he was forced into humiliating silence by suspect data and global discord. Meanwhile, the China connection, which had served him well, was also being hit by trade and investment problems.

The final nail in his popularity coffin was the attempt to impose a super tax on resource mining companies, even though the tax was more than justified.

Much of northwestern Australia’s Pilbara region, for example, is pure iron ore. Scratch the surface and it is staring at you — 60 percent pure hematite content. Scrape it out, put it into rail-trucks, send it down to 300,000-ton ore ships waiting in patient rows at nearby ports, and what used to sell for less than $10 a ton in the Japanese market now sells for more than $60 a ton in the booming Chinese market.

It’s a similar situation with the coal, which is close to the open-cut surface in much of eastern Queensland, or the uranium, nickel and other mineral deposits scattered across Australia. But the miners counterattacked with a massive advertising campaign. Somehow the Australian public was convinced that the tax, which would have done the nation such good, was dangerous adventurism.

True, Rudd could have done much more to persuade public opinion that the tax was justified — in Japan it is called nemawashi. Part of the problem could also have been the same lack of sensible tax logic that we see in Japan.

Working in the Whitlam administration, I had years earlier proposed and saw implemented a highly justified export tax on coal miners making windfall profits after the 1973 oil shock. The media disliked it, the bureaucrats mishandled it, and it disappeared a few years later.

Gut instinct and the common touch are keys to success in Australian politics. A good example was Bob Hawke, who once held a record for fast beer drinking (until it was taken from him by my brother).

Another was the conservative Prime Minister John Howard, with his constant talk about the need to help the “little Ozzie battler.” Both had broad Australian accents — as does the sharp-brained Gilliard. She also qualifies for the “little Ozzie battler” description. She could be with us for some time.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian government official and longtime resident of Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net