Why wasn’t Rudd in Brussels with the PM?
The relationship between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard was bound to be a fragile one. But it now looks like the Prime Minister has grounded her Foreign Minister, potentially damaging our international relations.
Kevin Rudd should have been in Brussels this past week with Julia Gillard.
The Prime Minister was in town for the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), a gathering of forty leaders from the two continents which Rudd lobbied hard to have Australia become a member of as Prime Minister. The leaders (or their deputies) of major and middle powers like China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea attended with their Foreign Ministers. But Rudd was nowhere to be seen.
For the past week the former Prime Minister has kept a low profile, perhaps hoping his absence would not be noticed.
A quick call to Rudd’s office yesterday afternoon suggested he had spent all his time in either Canberra or Brisbane since returning from the United States and the UN a few weeks ago.
Last night, a spokesman for Rudd said in a statement: “Since returning from his first overseas visit as Australia’s Foreign Minister, Mr Rudd has been actively pursuing Australia’s foreign policy priorities, including participating in briefings with Departmental officials and attending Parliament.”
Parliament did not sit last week.
The statement went on to say that Rudd would leave Australia this time next week to attend the Canonisation of Mary MacKillop, which was later released via his departmental website and also on his Twitter account.
Neither reason accounts for Rudd’s absence from Brussels. He has not given one speech or media interview in the last week to suggest he was otherwise engaged besides a photo-op with a handful of South American diplomats on Tuesday who are based in Canberra anyway.
But with Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott both fumbling the politics of their all important first overseas trips as leaders, Rudd’s absence conveniently went under the radar of most.
The Prime Minister’s prosecution of the Opposition Leader’s ‘jetlag’ dominated the media coverage of the first part of her time abroad – Abbott’s trip was in fact designed to gazump Gillard’s with a photo opportunity with British Prime Minister David Cameron and a hopeful warm reception at a conference he wasn’t even speaking at. All this came tenderly close to collapsing and focussing on Rudd when the Prime Minister announced in a television interview she wasn’t “passionate” about foreign affairs.
Gillard’s quiet grounding of her predecessor once mocked as ‘Kevin747’ was inevitable. His relationships with what are now her counterparts and his standing in the world would have completely overshadowed hers; let alone the awkward long-haul flight over.
But this comes at the expense of our international relations.
Rudd’s absence would have meant key bilateral meetings were missed with other member state representatives, and any proper gathering of Foreign Ministers would have been left with an empty chair in Australia’s place. Often the role and work of Foreign Ministers outweighs those of the leader at these gatherings.
Former Foreign Minister Stephen Smith warned often – particularly after his dumping in a mid-campaign deal to get Rudd and Gillard to cooperate was innocuously announced – that “you can never have a crack of light between a Foreign Minister and a Prime Minister”.
It is clear the relationship between the two is now affecting our international relations.
But the question has become not so much whether there is a crack but just how big we will let it get in a relationship fraught with tension and well, politics?
Thom Woodroofe, 21, was the 2009 Young Victorian of the Year and founder of Left Right Think-Tank. He is a non-resident Associate Fellow of the Asia Society in New York.
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