Saturday, December 11, 2010


It's not so much that this government lacks direction, because both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard know exactly where they want Australia to head.

The problem is that both these people appear to be going in different directions but neigther are sharing their objectives with ordinary Australians . . .


Kevin Rudd was caught up in a snowstorm of denial this week. "This is all just water off a duck's back. I could not care less." Bollocks he couldn’t. Nothing could’ve delivered him a firmer, more winding blow than confirmation that American diplomats are officially reporting back to Washington that Rudd is (and this list of quotes is not exclusive) an abrasive, impulsive, control freak, prone to mistakes, making significant blunders and blurting out snap announcements without advance consultation.

Oh. And that, since the beginning of this year, his own party has been talking about getting rid of him.

There's a good reason that most former leaders leave politics as soon as they deposed. It's because, eventually, details are revealed that irretrievably compromise their further work in the public sphere. The casual remarks Rudd passed about the inability of the French and German military to do anything more than folk-dance and barbecue sausages may have been long-suspected, but now they're out. This will irrevocably cruelled his already-damaged pitch as far as the Europeans are concerned. That little ‘phut’ was the sound of the last remaining bit of goodwill evaporating. The verbal apologies the US has now tended to the former PM aren’t even worth the paper they’d be written on if anyone bothered to note it down. And China? Under Rudd our once-close relationship had disintegrated. Nothing released this week has done anything to patch it back together.

The reality is that Rudd can now be treated as little more than a continuing (international) joke, with Australia as the punch-line. You won't find this written in any diplomatic cables of course, because then it might be leaked and that would be embarrassing. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. A far more uncomfortable fact for Julia Gillard is that she can't afford to do anything about it, no matter how much she wants to. When you're on a slender, one-seat majority, you just shut-up and pray, even if you’re an atheist. She's practiced at allowing him to walk all over her.

The morning after Rudd became Foreign Minister he organised an ‘impromptu’ walk with the US ambassador around the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. Rudd's office helpfully ensured that all the television networks were aware of this little bit of performance art, so it could be reported in the news bulletins that night. The pictures were intended to demonstrate he was on the comeback trail, and certainly not some lonely, pathetic, or despised former PM who'd been dumped, with extreme prejudice, by his party a couple of months earlier. You can be sure that Canberra's diplomats are still eagerly waiting in line to chat to the Foreign Minister. That's their job. It doesn't mean that anyone likes or respects him.

What's more significant is that this affair blows apart the coalition that Gillard was engaged in stitching-up between the left and the right of the party. The news that right-winger Senator Mark Arbib was volunteering information to US diplomats that he was denying to Australians won't have helped mend any fences. Many will be shocked to learn just how tightly the former leader had sought to wage Labor, embedding it deeply within the US alliance.

Rudd, a founding member of the so-called Australia/US "leadership dialogue", had perspicaciously noted that the Cold War with Russia was over, but that a new one with China was rising from the ashes. Instead of working to pour the cold water of rapprochement over this potential conflict, Rudd was blowing the embers and fanning them. He even warned the US that it might be necessary to send a military message to Beijing. There can be no recovery from a blunder such as this.

The other, more serious division that's been opened up across Australian society concerns the notion of authority. With the possible exception of the Arbib revelations there is little that is new in the documents that have been released. What has changed is the authority of the source. Some journalists (like ABC television’s Barry Cassidy and radio’s Fran Kelly) twigged somewhat late to the change in the way Rudd was being viewed within the party. It apparently required David Marr's excellent (and now award-winning) Quarterly Essay to permit a redefinition of the framework that could be used to perceive reality. But some other journalists possessed a far more intimate understanding of the nature of Labor in power.

It was former Canberra Times journalist Phillip Dorling who unearthed these facts, providing them with the prominence they deserved. The former diplomat was working as a policy adviser to Labor’s Laurie Brereton when his house was raided during the Sydney Olympics by police searching for leaked documents about East Timor. Of course nothing was found, but quite possibly that was irrelevant. The aim may have been simply to intimidate. Then, eight years and three days later, Dorling was again subjected to another fruitless and pointless search by police. It was widely believed that Rudd or Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, who'd been significantly embarrassed by Dorling’s reporting, must have authorised the raid.

Within a year, further revelations by Dorling had led to Fitzgibbon's resignation. Even the reshuffle after the election failed to see the MP offered his spot back at the Cabinet table, although he's a close friend of Gillard's. This week it was Dorling, not Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who extracted from the masses of cables the relevant sections relating to Australia: the same ones that have so disastrously effectively ended any chance Rudd may have had of pursuing a UN career.

At one time, the only source of power was the government. That's still true in places like China yet even there authoritarianism is under threat. When confronted with the leaking of the cables at the beginning of the week, Gillard (correctly) insisted that the foundation-stone of the leaking was "an illegal act" and (wrongly) implied that Assange was therefore guilty of breaking a law, although she didn't specify which law in which jurisdiction (because she can't). Assange simply published information -- just like the editor of every newspaper in Australia. Are they all to be arrested? The truth of the matter is that the facts Dorling has unearthed are highly uncomfortable. They reflect poorly on Labor, revealing duplicity at the highest levels of our government.

The authoritarians would like to keep these revelations tightly locked behind closed doors, but they can't any more. That's why Justice Minister, Brendan O’Connor, was floundering yesterday when asked if Assange had broken any law. He was unable to explain, even in the vaguest terms, what transgression may have occurred but assured the public that police are investigating. He doesn't seem to realise that the horse has already bolted.

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