Kevin Rudd: Wisely Keeping His Own Counsel

By Richard Laidlaw
For The Bali Times

UNGASAN, Bali ~ When new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd visited Bali this week to attend the UN climate conference and make the symbolic move to have his country ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it would have been one of his proudest moments.

Not many Australian leaders get the chance to stand in the global spotlight immediately on taking office. Even fewer get the opportunity in doing so to leave the president of the United States like a shag on a rock.

Rudd convincingly won Australia’s national elections on November 24, persuading the country’s voters to toss out the 11-year-old Howard government. Almost his first act thereafter was to formally embrace Kyoto, leaving the United States as the only developed country not to ratify.

Rudd also got to visit Bali, of course, which is always a plus.

Not a lot separates Labor and the formerly governing Liberal Party in the policy sense. (Arguably more separates the true political objectives of the Liberals from those of the smaller, rural-based National Party with which it historically has lived in coalition.)

Ratifying Kyoto is the bellwether issue. It outranks Iraq, another Labor totem in terms of withdrawing combat troops (all 550 of them: many others will remain on duty in the Gulf and in Iraq itself). It even beats industrial relations as a touchstone, made too hot for Howard by his round of further reforms after his historic fourth term victory in 2004.

Rudd understands Kyoto’s symbolic importance and its political attraction. Howard didn’t, or maybe he mistook Australians’ relaxed and comfortable approach to life, and their love affair with consumerism, for absence of reformist zeal to ameliorate the worst-case effects of climate change.

The new Australian leader is a bureaucrat by training, experience and practice. He is a politician by choice, but what he brings to politics and government is a process-driven, public service perspective. That’s not to say his vision is deficient. At this point, you could make a strong argument that politically at least it is 20-20.

But it is to say that the Rudd government is unlikely to surprise anyone, in rhetoric or results.

Rudd himself is cautious, an assiduous consensus builder, a quick learner. Famously, he is a Mandarin speaker. Fortunately, he now speaks Mandarin far more effortlessly and accurately than he did when, as a hapless third secretary in Australia’s Beijing embassy in the middle 1980s, he reported to the Chinese, for whom he was translating a visiting Australian luminary’s happy words, that the two countries were enjoying multiple orgasms in their relationship.

He also has a strong streak of common sense. Advice that is wrong will not be accepted, if the evidence of one incident in 1994 is any guide.

At that time the chief adviser to the premier of Queensland, Rudd was considering a move into parliamentary politics. This writer, at that time editorialist on Queensland’s state daily newspaper The Courier-Mail and enjoying one of those comfortable little chats that media people have with the great and powerful from time to time, remarked that Rudd should perhaps consider running for the Senate (the upper house, from which the prime minister cannot be chosen).

Thank goodness he failed to act on that poor advice.

Richard Laidlaw worked in the media and in government and politics in Australia from the early 1970s and came to Bali to live in 2005.

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