Kevin Rudd says he was told he had Malcolm Turnbull’s strong support for his bid for the top job at the United Nations before the Prime Minister suddenly reneged on that commitment, according to private letters from Mr Rudd to Mr Turnbull, obtained by Fairfax Media.
In an explosive new development in the aftermath of the Turnbull government’s official rejection of Mr Rudd’s request for endorsement to run for the post of secretary-general of the United Nations, Mr Rudd has released letters, which, while only showing one side, suggest that agreements had been reached to support the Rudd bid, but that this support was suddenly withdrawn on May 1, just days before the election was called.
“You will recall that last September, I contacted you asking for guidance on how I should address the matter of your previously stated support to me for my candidature when I met Foreign Minister Bishop at the UN General Assembly in September,” Mr Rudd wrote to Mr Turnbull in an email said to be dated May 1, 2016.
“You in fact sent me a message on your preferred Wickr system where you stated that you and the FM (foreign minister) were “as one” in your support for my candidature.
“You will also recall I came to see you in your Parliament House office on 11 November last year where we discussed the matter at length. Once again you restated your position of support for my candidature. You went further to ask for a list of governments whom you would need to lobby at a prime ministerial level in the future.
“We continued this discussion further on Wednesday 23 December in your Sydney office. Once again you stated your support for my candidature. You added that when the time came to lodge my nomination, you now wanted to take it to cabinet to avoid the perception of a “captain’s pick”. You also said to me that the cabinet process would not change the outcome.”
The correspondence, assuming it accurately reflects discussions between the former and current prime ministers, suggests Mr Rudd has been victim to a sudden policy and attitude change by Mr Turnbull.
It also suggests that claims by Turnbull aides that he had never backed the Rudd nomination, could be wrong.
A spokeswoman for the PM said Mr Rudd’s claim that he had received support in December of last year was wrong, and he was advised in April that the matter would need to go to cabinet.
Mr Rudd learned by telephone that he would not be nominated to run for the top UN job, despite requesting a face-to-face meeting with Mr Turnbull and flying to Sydney for that purpose.
“Mr Rudd flew to Sydney this morning, requesting a meeting with the Prime Minister, having sought such a meeting the previous evening,” said Mr Rudd in a Friday statement.
The decision to reject his request for Australian endorsement was a severe blow to the two-time Labor prime minister, who has been campaigning across the world for the past 18 months, on an understanding of official backing at some point.
It is also being seen as a defeat for Ms Bishop, who recommended nomination, and who believed he was eminently qualified to at least go forward into what would inevitably be a difficult, complex, and potentially arduous international process dominated by super-power politics.
Cabinet colleagues denied suggestions that Mr Turnbull’s decision, which had followed an acrimonious cabinet debate, was aimed at eroding Ms Bishop’s authority amid ongoing mutterings that a senior figure from the party’s conservative wing, most likely Peter Dutton, is positioning for her job as deputy Liberal leader.
In an abrupt midday press conference in Sydney, Mr Turnbull revealed that he had told the former prime minister that in his opinion, Mr Rudd was not well suited to enter the nomination race to replace outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“This is no disparagement of Mr Rudd. He is a former prime minister of Australia,” Mr Turnbull said in Sydney on Friday.
“But my judgment is that he is not well suited for this particular role.”
“I do not want to add to his disappointment, but the threshold point here is when the Australian government nominates a person for a job . . . is do we believe the person, the nominee, the would-be nominee is well suited for that position?”
Mr Turnbull maintained the snub had nothing to do with partisan politics but rather was “a judgment about Mr Rudd’s suitability for that particular role”.
In his statement, Mr Rudd expressed his disappointment for the loss of an historic opportunity: “It would have been the first time in the United Nations’ 70-year history that Australia offered a candidate for UN Secretary-General,” he wrote.
“A nomination by the government would not have granted Mr Rudd a position. It would simply have enabled him to stand alongside the 12 other candidates from across the world, and compete on his merits – that is now not to be”
In a sign of internal Liberal Party tensions finding expression though this issue, a senior government figure volunteered that the repudiation of Mr Rudd was not a reflection on Ms Bishop, but turned specifically on Mr Rudd’s shortcomings.
When asked about what those unsuitable characteristics of Mr Rudd were, Mr Turnbull declined to elaborate, saying he did not want to add to Mr Rudd’s disappointment.
Acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek and foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong called the move a “petty decision”.
“This captain’s call confirms that Malcolm Turnbull occupies the office of Prime Minister in name only. Australia is diminished by his weakness,” the pair said.
Former Hawke government foreign minister Gareth Evans was scathing, declaring that the decision did Mr Turnbull no credit.
“Kevin Rudd’s international standing is very high. He is regarded as immensely competent and credible, and – though facing a number of obvious obstacles (including I think a likely Russian veto) – was manifestly seen as a serious candidate for the UNSG position,” he said.
“This decision is embarrassing for Australia. It will be seen by most governments around the world for what it is: petty, partisan and vindictive. Julie Bishop understood that, and she has been put in a very invidious position by her Leader’s failure to stand up for the perfectly reasonable position she took.
“It will leave a very bad taste in many mouths. The country is crying out for more bipartisanship on major policy issues, and this is no way to get it.”
Ministers opted to hand the decision to Mr Turnbull at Thursday’s cabinet meeting.
Ms Bishop had offered support for Mr Rudd’s nomination to succeed Ban Ki-moon, arguing it was appropriate as a former prime minister and would not amount to an endorsement from the Australian government.
Senior ministers including Scott Morrison, Greg Hunt and Peter Dutton remained opposed to supporting Mr Rudd, president of the New York-based Asia Society Policy Institute.
Right-wing backbencher Cory Bernardi welcomed the move in a statement posted to Twitter.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott had pledged to support former New Zealand Labour prime minister Helen Clark, who also has the backing of her country’s government.
The move has been seen as Mr Turnbull avoiding a fight with members of the Coalition partyroom who were steadfast in their opposition to Mr Rudd, despite the precedent of governments supporting former rivals for international roles.
Some member nations have expected a woman to become secretary-general for the first time, while eastern European nations have argued they are due to have a representative in the top job.
Of the 12 declared candidates, Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal, is considered a frontrunner after a strong showing in the first straw-poll vote.
Ms Clark has been backed in her nomination by New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who is from the conservative National Party.
The UN Security Council will consider nominated candidates from next month, before taking a resolution for the role to the General Assembly.
The five Security Council permanent member nations, including the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France can veto any nominee.
A secret ballot will take place, before the next secretary-general is due to take office on January 1.