Commentary / World

Refusal to nominate Rudd betrays Turnbull's weakness

by Ramesh Thakur

On Friday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Australia will not nominate ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as a candidate for the next U.N. secretary-general. The international consequence is an end to Rudd’s ambition to lead the United Nations and a projection of Australia as small-minded, mean-spirited and petty. The domestic fallout is it will embolden the right-wing fringe of the governing coalition, betrays Turnbull’s shrunken political space for stamping his authority on government policy and agenda, and undermines the prospects of bipartisan cooperation for a government with a one-seat majority in the House and no majority in the Senate.

The long Australian election campaign had already sabotaged Rudd’s possibility of participating in the public sessions already held with the twelve secretary-general candidates. Turnbull’s reduced majority after the election further constricted his political space: The party’s base has never forgiven him for deposing Tony Abbott, do not trust him, are incandescent at the retrospective changes to superannuation tax that break trust with citizens and, contrary to core conservative values, will confiscate the savings of the prudent and the thrifty, and detests Rudd with venom.

This is especially galling to Labor because Rudd had displeased many within his party in appointing Liberal politicians to international posts, for example former Defense Minister Brendan Nelson as ambassador to the European Union and special representative to NATO. In the petulant refusal to nominate Rudd, Turnbull is parting from the civil ways of New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key and sliding down the partisan pathway of the U.S. Former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark has been nominated and her campaign backed by Key’s conservative government.

Rudd’s prospects of being the chosen one would have been slim at best. The rest of the world has little idea of the depth of dislike for Rudd among many Australians. But many Australians are equally ignorant of his high international reputation for intellect, grasp of big-picture-policy interconnectedness (an essential qualification for being secretary-general), intimate familiarity with the countries that count, and deep knowledge of the international system.

His efforts in tackling the global financial crisis, getting the Group of 20 off the ground, trying to manage climate change and the historic apology to Australia’s indigenous peoples are widely remembered and highly appreciated. The last explains why many indigenous leaders have condemned the government’s rebuff to Rudd.

When Rudd became party and opposition leader, one Labor Party icon told me: “Kevin has the sharpest policy brains of anyone in public life I have known.” That Rudd turned out to be a disruptive prime minister is hardly a secret. But the U.N. could do with a disruptive secretary-general who really shakes the organization inside out.

Turnbull was not being asked to choose the next secretary-general, merely to nominate. Rudd may be an extinguished prime minister, but he is a distinguished Australian. The only question for government was if his candidacy would be credible. The answer is an emphatic yes, as confirmed by the department of foreign affairs.

Australia, not presently a member of the U.N. Security Council, does not even get a vote on the matter. The real decision will be made by the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States). All are capable of doing their own due diligence on Rudd’s qualifications, experience, temperament and suitability for the job. They and the world will also make unflattering judgments on Australia for thwarting Rudd’s chance of being considered for the job, despite the national self-image of a fair go for everyone.

Unlike most previous occasions, this year’s candidates require formal nomination by governments. The government should have acted as the government of Australia, not as a government for coalition voters, and nominated Rudd. This would not have required Canberra to invest substantial resources, time or effort into full-throated campaigning for Rudd. It would have meant the government merely enabled and facilitated his candidacy to proceed. This is believed to have been Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s preference. The decision, on a matter concerning her portfolio, will diminish her authority — and she has been the standout coalition minister since 2013.

When the late Malcolm Fraser — the bete noir of Australia’s Labor Party for his role in the Whitlam government’s dismissal in 1975 — decided to run for the post of commonwealth secretary-general, the Hawke Labor government backed him and then-Foreign Minister Gareth Evans was his campaign manager. When Evans expressed interest in being head of UNESCO, the Howard government supported him. That neither campaign was successful is irrelevant to the larger point encompassing the virtues of the tradition of bipartisan, national support for Australians seeking high international office.

For the first time in the U.N.’s 70-year history, a credible Australian candidate — a former prime minister, foreign minister, career diplomat — was interested in the world’s top diplomatic job. The Turnbull Cabinet proved incapable of rising above petty party political opposition. That will be its international epitaph on this story.

The Security Council conducted the first informal straw poll on July 21. The results were contrary to the English-language Western media’s expectations (no surprise there, given their ignorance and bias.) The top three positions were taken by former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, former Slovenian President Danilo Turk, and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. Any of the three would make a fine secretary-general, as would some of the others below them.

I have no emotional or intellectual capital vested in Rudd becoming U.N. head. I do care about the decline of Australian bipartisanship on international issues, for down that path lies rancor and bitterness that can endanger civic communities. Turnbull’s rejection of Rudd’s request — despite appearing to have indicated strong support earlier — is a sorry reminder of the creeping U.S.-style partisanship of Australian politics.

Senior Labor leaders have harshly criticized the government’s failure to back Rudd. Having injected the poison of partisanship on a decision that should have been made purely on national considerations, the government should expect no favors from an embittered Labor for the smooth conduct of parliamentary business. The decision betrays a lack of statesmanlike leadership and demonstrates Turnbull’s weakness as a leader. The judgment on Rudd’s suitability as U.N. head is also a question mark on Turnbull’s fitness to be the prime minister of Australia.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and a former U.N. assistant secretary-general.