Monday, November 15, 2010

Who's making Foreign Policy?

The Gillard government is less than six months old, but already two constants can be discerned. The first is that the Prime Minister is apparently out of her depth when it comes to dealing with international issues. The second is that Kevin Rudd remains in effective control of foreign policy.

This was my take on the AUSMIN talks in Australia . . .

The soft ‘swoosh’ you heard earlier this week might have been the sound of Hillary Clinton’s personal jet leaving Australian airspace, whisking her away to the next international meeting. Or it might have been the sound of Barak Obama, understandably too busy to actually touch-down, soaring over the Timor sea as he made his way to stop-off in Jakarta.

But there’s a third possibility as well, far more likely. Kevin Rudd leaves a gentle disturbance in the air when he’s pulling fast-ones over the slow-moving Julia Gillard. It takes a while before anyone realises what’s actually happened and by then he’s moved on. But the odour lingers and it’s turning elements of the left red hot.

Nobody here really noticed Clinton’s visit. Those that did are probably pushed to remember she did anything other than pass a flippant comment about the way we like Vegemite. Nevertheless, as a direct result of the AUSMIN meeting this week, Australia’s relationship with the US has never been more closely intertwined. Even in the fiercest days of cold war conflict there were no American forces based here. Now there will be. And, as far as Rudd is concerned, the beauty of this is that no-one has challenged any of the arrangements that he, and he alone, has decided upon, with merely a cursory reference to Gillard. Closer alliance relationships are not necessarily bad, of course. It’s just that Rudd has decided to completely ignore party policy as he makes whatever arrangements he chooses to.

When he finally acted to save the slow-motion car-crash that Gillard’s abysmal election campaign had become, Rudd was able to nominate his own price as a reward. He had a simple demand: he would become Foreign Minister and act as he saw fit. She readily agreed, pathetically grateful that he was prepared to save her bacon. After all, she reasoned to herself, what harm could Rudd do?

The local media reacted ecstatically to Clinton’s visit. But not all Australian’s are equally enthusiastic at the prospect of hosting thousands of American soldiers over here, either permanently or for as long as they want to stay. Peter Garrett might now be singing approvingly, “US forces get the nod”, but others are furious. They insist that just because American combat units are no longer welcome in Japan or South Korea, it doesn’t mean we need to host them here. ANU Professor Hugh White tried outlining a new, progressive path forward, accepting both the reality of the rise of China and our close cultural links with the US. That vision’s now been trashed. As far as Beijing is concerned, our enmity has been proven beyond doubt.

The really stunning aspect of this week’s AUSMIN talks was the way in which ordinary Australians were excluded from any part of what should have been a positive debate about our role in the modern world. Instead Rudd alone has acted to link us, irrevocably and decisively, to America. No other options were considered.

Rudd is unilaterally making foreign policy. Gillard doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Neither does anyone else in Labor apart, perhaps, from a beaming Kim Beazley standing on the sidelines of the talks. But he was no problem for Rudd – our current Ambassador to Washington has never made any secret of his advocacy for the alliance. The only time those two ever fell out was when Beazley made the mistake of standing in the path of Rudd’s ambition. They share the same world-view. Both are Christians who once shared the same proselytising zeal, although Beazley actually travelled to India to work alongside missionaries, whereas it was only ever rumoured (at university) that Rudd was learning Mandarin so that he could preach to the Chinese.

The Greens might, quite genuinely, believe they’re having an input through their fortnightly meetings with Gillard, but they still do they’re being hoodwinked by professionals. By pretending he’s involved in helping the government set policy, MP Adam Brandt is providing lush top-cover while Rudd goes ahead doing whatever he wants.

These AUSMIN talks won’t be forgotten – not by the diplomats whose job it is to observe what goes on in Canberra today. Australia still has a bid in to become a member of the UN Security Council in 2012. Our rivals are Finland and Luxemburg, the latter with a population of about half a million people. Unfortunately, only two of the three countries can make it onto the top table – and now we won’t be one of them, no matter how strongly we lobby. As far as the foreigners were concerned they saw a vassal state ready to do the bidding of a superpower, and that’s not what anyone wants on the UN’s peak body. You could almost hear the ‘plop’ as votes around the Middle-East, Africa and Europe swung behind the little city-state in protest at what’s perceived as our subservience to Washington. The diplomats also noted who makes foreign policy. They’ve already sent their cables back home saying ‘you don’t have to worry about Gillard’. She’s only allowed to deal with domestic issues, like threatening to do something about the latest interest rate rises.
Of course, exactly what she might do remains highly unclear. Our US friends have deliberately begun devaluing their currency as part of a determined effort to kick-start their economy. It’s a policy lifted straight from the 1930’s depression and completely ignores the fact that similar pump priming failed to ignite Japan’s (still-moribund) sectors in the 1990’s. Gillard’s jawboning of the banks is having absolutely no effect – as it shouldn’t in a free economy. The answer is not more regulation; it’s more competition and aligning fiscal policy properly to prevent monetary tightening having a negative effect. This requires less shouting at the villains and more work ironing out the issues that are causing frustration of ordinary voters to ignite in flaring anger. If Wayne Swan had been busier attempting to implement some of the recommendations of the Henry tax review, instead of lighting on the mining tax as a way of boosting treasury’s coffers, it might be possible to have some sympathy for his attacks on the greedy bankers.

Perhaps a better way of encouraging them to contribute to society might be to draft the odd banking executive and send them to Afghanistan to help establish the banking sector in that country. Perhaps then we’d find out if their CEO’s really thought if a week’s salary was really worth more than a year’s pay for a fighting soldier.

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