The members of the Turnbull cabinet seemed to think they were making a decision about Kevin Rudd.
They were mistaken. They were making a decision about themselves. And about our country. Their choice tells us a good deal about the newly elected government. It does not augur well.
Hear why the PM won’t support Kevin Rudd’s bid to be the UN Secretary General. Courtesy ABC News 24.
There were two frames through which the government could have chosen to see the matter. One was national, the other political. The national frame dictates Australia should nominate an Australian for a global competition and wish him luck.
How many candidates did Australia have seeking nomination? One. As the former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson put it: “I could spend quite a lot of time having a discussion with you about Mr Rudd’s failings, but I think this is an occasion where we need to be at our best as Australians.”
Australia helped to found the UN. Labor’s H.V. “Doc” Evatt mobilised smaller powers to join as an attempt to prevent it becoming an exclusive tool of the great powers. He was the president of the General Assembly in 1948-49.
But an Australian has never held the secretary-general’s post. A dozen other nations have nominated candidates.
On the other hand, the political frame means that personal opinions and partisan games can be allowed into play.
Turnbull chose to apply the political frame. Personal opinions and partisan games dominated.
How could it not be a decision about Rudd? The Prime Minister himself said that it was. “This is a judgment about Mr Rudd’s suitability for that particular role,” Turnbull said on Friday, the only explanation he offered for his decision to refuse to nominate Rudd to enter the contest for the post of UN Secretary General.
Perhaps it wasn’t clearly explained to Turnbull. It’s not a job offer; it’s a nomination to an international competition. It’s not Turnbull’s place to decide the suitability of the next secretary-general.
He’s not even on the interview panel. There are 15 nations that will choose the next secretary-general. They are the members of the UN Security Council. The five permanent members, each with veto power, have the biggest say.
Australia has one point of potential input, and only one. Does it want to nominate a candidate? Australia has now decided that it will not.
Does Turnbull insist on personally vetting the members of Australia’s Olympics team? Of course not. He waves them farewell and wishes them luck.
The athletes have to qualify, of course. So did Rudd. In his case, the Department of Foreign Affairs advised the government that he was a credible candidate. Julie Bishop did her job as minister in carrying that advice to the Cabinet and making the case to nominate him.
After qualifying, the athletes go off to compete. In Rudd’s case, he would have joined the field of a dozen candidates for a contest to be decided by the Security Council in October.
But the Turnbull government has decided, without assessing the dozen others, to prejudge the contest and prejudge the Security Council.
There is a persistent misconception that, if not Rudd, Australia can support New Zealand’s candidate, Helen Clark. Of course, any country can say what it likes, but this is really a nonsense and Tony Abbott was its originator.
When he was prime minister, Abbott said he would support Clark merely as a mechanism to spite Rudd. It’s a measure of sheer provincial political bile that Abbott, a proud supporter of the ANZUS alliance, would rather support Clark. As prime minister, Clark continued the NZ boycott of ANZUS. The current leader, John Key, has relaxed it and is returning his country to the alliance.
In any case, there is no provision in the UN processes for any such thing. The Security Council’s five permanent members – the US, China, Britain, France and Russia – will choose from among the candidates according to their own interests.
The job certainly won’t default to Clark. Based on last week’s informal straw poll of council members, she’s ranked sixth. Portugal’s former prime minister, Antonio Guterres, is the clear leader.
Following Abbott’s lead, in recent weeks the right faction of the Liberal Party ran a bitter campaign of public vitriol against Rudd. It became deranged. The former elder statesman of the conservative faction, Eric Abetz, now a backbench senator, put out a press release headed “Don’t inflict Rudd on UN”.
It’s touching, incidentally, that the traditionally UN-sceptic conservatives have suddenly discovered such concern over its choice of bureaucrats.
Abetz’s opening line: “According to his former colleagues, Mr Rudd is a narcissist, a micro-manager, an impulsive control freak and a psychopath – just to name a few.”
His conclusion: “If Mr Rudd lacked the capacity and temperament to be Labor leader, by his own colleagues’ assessment, he lacks the qualities to head the UN.”
So Abetz’s lodestar is suddenly Labor’s judgment? This is a new position for him. On this logic, we should assess all politicians according to the insults of their internal enemies. Even you, Eric. This is ridiculous stuff.
In the approach to Thursday’s cabinet debate, the Liberal right faction ramped up the anti-Rudd theatrics, a political haka performance. Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, huffed and puffed and stamped and posed intimidatingly. They carried the fight into the cabinet room, determined to overturn the recommendation of Julie Bishop, a moderate, and to spite Rudd and the Labor Party.
It was rampant personal and partisan politics. Turnbull presided as a neutral chairman, showing no inclination, as he listened to the arguments for and against. In the face of a divided cabinet, he asked his colleagues for a “hunting licence” – permission to take the decision himself – and was given one.
He should have applied the national frame to the decision. He is Prime Minister for all Australians, including the 4,311,365 who gave primary votes to Rudd’s Labor in the 2013 election.
Rudd himself was capable of playing hard partisan politics, but he was also notably bipartisan in making appointments. He appointed the former Nationals leader Tim Fischer ambassador to the Vatican, Brendan Nelson ambassador to NATO and the EU and Peter Costello to the board of the Future Fund. Had he wanted it, there was a solid case available to Turnbull to make the national decision. Instead he chose the political. Why?
He fears for the unity of his government. He is acutely conscious that he was narrowly returned to power, that he is subject to a lot of biting internal criticism over the campaign, that a small knot of his party’s conservatives – Abetz, Cory Bernardi, George Christiansen, Kevin Andrews – will enjoy making trouble for him if they can.
And he knows that some difficult decisions lie ahead. His authority may be tested on matters including his proposed superannuation reforms, which have generated some heated anger among the party’s base. The same sex marriage plebiscite will also test his powers of internal political management.
Before the election, when Turnbull imagined his future self to be in a stronger position, he was committed to supporting Rudd in the national interest.
As Rudd wrote to Turnbull in a letter he released on Friday night: “You in fact sent me a message on your preferred Wickr system [encrypted message service] where you stated that you and the FM [foreign minister] were ‘as one’ in your support for my candidature.”
Newly anxious, Turnbull has preferred to appease his right faction, to yield their personal and partisan vitriol, than to support his deputy leader and foreign affairs minister. He allowed himself to be bullied rather than advised.
This is a decision taken in fear. It’s a decision about preserving the personal political position of the leader. It’s not a decision to enlarge the possibilities for Australia, to allow the country to see one of its own in an international post of some profile and prestige.
If Turnbull is so sensitive about his position in the first flush of a new term, it is a poor omen for the three years ahead.
If he weighs the national decision against the political and prefers the political, it’s a bad sign for the country.
The only winners from this decision are the exuberant partisans and bitter haters in the Liberal Party.
Turnbull is right that the UN secretary-generalship is not the most important matter before the government.
It’s not an especially powerful job, certainly not the “leader of the world” as some reporters have misunderstood it.
The secretary-general is the chief administrative officer of the UN and answers to the force-wielding Security Council; he does the council’s bidding. He can raise matters for the Council but cannot decide any.
He, or she, could be an effective mediator and problem-solver in a limited way on the rare occasions where the great powers are actually interested in solving problems.The fate of the world doesn’t depend on the choice. But the fate of Australia, in many ways, does depend on the Turnbull government and how the prime minister interprets his mandate. An anxious PM tip-toeing in fear of upsetting his most restive members is not a leader who will make difficult choices in the national interest.
We can only hope that this is an aberration, not a precedent, for a new term of government.
Peter Hartcher is political editor.