Rudd and Turnbull are the safe hands for foreign affairs
In the next few days we should know whether Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott will be the next Prime Minister.
Regardless of whoever prevails they should do the country a favour and appoint the leader they knocked off to be the country’s chief diplomat.
The position of Minister for Foreign Affairs, which for the moment at least also has trade tacked on, is a coveted portfolio. Unlike most other ministries it has traditionally involved dealing almost exclusively with matters core to the national interest with a lesser regard for the day-to-day trench warfare of politics. Until Kevin Rudd came along.
When the mandarin speaking ex-diplomat became Prime Minister it was well regarded that whoever was appointed to the Foreign Ministry would constantly be working in his shadow.
This was the case for Stephen Smith, and it must be said, he did an exceptional job in the circumstances.
Rudd vetoed Smith’s recommendations for various diplomatic appointments and announced major initiatives like the Asia Pacific Community without consultation.
But all this does not detract from the fact that Rudd is the most qualified to be the next Foreign Minister.
Rudd’s recent jostling such as attending the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Washington shortly after his demise, which I was at, and his recent UN appointment are clearly about sending a message that he wants the ministry. The Lowy Institute has even reported he is sounding out potential advisors for the role.
From Gillard’s perspective it makes sense to appoint Rudd as Foreign Minister, if a specific deal has not already been done.
Lacking experience on the world stage besides her involvement in the Australian Israel Leadership Forum and a relation-mending trip to India last year, she needs an experienced hand like Rudd to steer foreign affairs. Handing him the portfolio also means he spends even more times overseas and can seamlessly continue to pursue his pet projects such as nuclear non-proliferation and regional architecture.
More importantly, Gillard needs to do everything in her power to avoid any by-elections should she hold on to power and appeasing Rudd is an easy first step. While he was passionate about health reform giving him another portfolio such as that is unlikely to satisfy a man of his ambitions, particularly with many lucrative external offers likely to continue to flow his way.
Few can challenge Rudd’s credentials within the Labor party.
Besides Smith, who will never get the opportunity to truly shine in the role, Simon Crean would be the only other likely experienced contender. But Gillard has already moved him to the employment and education portfolios and there are widely circulated rumours he wants to leave politics and be the next Ambassador to China.
Perhaps the larger question is who would be Foreign Minister if Tony Abbott forms government?
Julie Bishop certainly shouldn’t be after her dismal performance in the shadow position, suggesting Australia’s intelligence community forged passports earlier this year. Her flare for combative politics would be underutilised too.
Andrew Robb would be another strong contender, but his background with the National Farmers Federation would make him pivotal to keeping the relationship between the Nationals and independents cordial.
On paper at least Greg Hunt is probably the most qualified.
A Fulbright scholar of international affairs from Yale University, he has worked for the World Economic Forum, advised Alexander Downer when he was the Minister and later served as his Parliamentary Secretary upon entering parliament.
But Hunt would have to move from the environmental portfolio in which he has excelled and deserves an opportunity to govern.
All this leads to one man: Malcolm Turnbull.
Abbott has promised Turnbull a senior position in Cabinet and should honour that commitment. Like Gillard, he would also be keen to dispatch overseas the ambitious former leader he rolled for the top job.
Turnbull for his part is also well qualified for the Treasury, Environmental, Attorney-General, and Communications portfolios.
Treasury is already committed and politically dangerous, his divergent views and previous experience practically rule him out as Environment Minister, and George Brandis deserves to be the Attorney-General. This leaves the Communications Ministry and his zeal for all things technological the only other real contender.
Regardless of the outcome it is clear our new Prime Minister will spend less time abroad given the weight of the domestic agenda, as another former leader, Kim Beazley, pointed out over the weekend.
With that in mind we need safe hands for our foreign affairs.
Thom Woodroofe, 21, was the 2009 Young Victorian of the Year and founder of Left Right Think-Tank. He is a frequent commentator on international affairs.
Email: thomwoodroofe (at) gmail.com
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