Wednesday 10 Aug 2022 | 21:14 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 10 Aug 2022 | 21:14 | SYDNEY

Farewell to the Canberra Column


Graeme Dobell

21 December 2012 10:35

After five years and 300,000 words, this is my final Canberra Column. Is that a mountain of punditry or just a maze?

A quick wade through the wordage leaves little doubt about the recurrent theme that runs through the five years: this was the era of Kevinism. As Prime Minister, The Kevin was his own über foreign minister. Then, as PM-in-exile, he was foreign minister. A column devoted to Canberra's place in the foreign policy firmament could ask for no more.

In the month the column kicked off, April 2008, two efforts were devoted to Rudd's 2020 Summit, covering the discussions on 'Australia's Future in the Region and the World', one of ten streams running through the giant talkfest in Parliament House involving 1000 Australians. We had a new leader who wanted to try new things; there's a thought and a moment that faded fast.

Much of the coverage of The Kevin was devoted to his efforts to remake Asia's security architecture. The first ever Canberra Column mused on the old divide in Australian diplomacy between the Northeast Asianists and the ASEANists, suggesting that Kevin Rudd, as a Northener, would run into plenty of trouble with ASEAN.

The spark had been a speech Rudd gave in Washington saying the Six-Party talks should be broadened (and Australia enrolled as a new member) to create Asia's new security structure; this was at a time when a deal with North Korea looked possible and the Six Party process seemed like a success. The implied Rudd message was that ASEAN might be in the driver's seat, but it wasn't actually driving anywhere; time for a new vehicle and more drivers.

From that speech, ASEAN had Rudd in its sights. Then, in June, 2008, Rudd unveiled his idea for an Asia Pacific Community. The Canberra Column had a great time charting the ups and downs of the struggle with ASEAN that followed. The right to roam well beyond Canberra meant I was in Singapore in mid-2009 to hear the Rudd speech to the Shangri La Dialogue on how absolutely wonderful and central ASEAN is. And, more importantly, to note that, in the written text of the speech, Rudd had gone from large 'C' Community to small 'c' community. 

Australia no longer aspired to an Asia Pacific Community; ideas of Asia Pacific community would suffice. Getting excited about stuff like this explains why one of my career highlights was covering a dozen APEC summits (it's not the funny shirts, I tell you, it's the zest and zing of the communiqués). 

By April, 2010, the column interpreted a Rudd speech as the Prime Minister flying the white flag of surrender to ASEAN, calling it a nod of obeisance rather than an actual surrender. The turning point in the Canberra Column's view of Kevinism was a three-part series in July 2009, all built around a one-word description of the Rudd Government: 'dysfunctional'. That view of Rudd had become the whispered consensus around much of this town by the end of his first full year in power. By mid-2009, it was the interpretation begging to be written. 

When Rudd walked away from his climate change commitments in 2010, this was the Canberra Column conclusion: 'It's all very well to campaign in poetry yet govern in prose, but Kevin Rudd is in danger of descending to direction-via-drivel.'

Rudd had a bad case of the first term balls-up blues but caucus wasn't going to give him time to recover. In the work of a moment, he was cut down, disposed of like a state premier no longer able to dominate the nightly news.

The Rudd encore as Foreign Minister was frenetic: his work rate was prodigious, the ambition nearly as high. The self-confidence and the sense of conviction never flagged. The intensity was undoubted; only the ultimate intent was regularly questioned. Then, in February, Gillard took The Kevin back into caucus and did it to him again, only this time with feeling.

Rudd's ability as an international thinker is undoubted. Just scan the series of foreign policy speeches he has penned as a backbencher in the last few months on a US-China strategic roadmap, the priorities of China's new leadership, the UN Security Council and the Middle East, and the latest version of the argument he has been making throughout the year for a Pax Pacifica to replace the Pax Americana and avert a Pax Sinica.

For any foreign affairs tragic, The Kevin is the gift that keeps on giving, and the Canberra Column gives appropriate thanks. Time now to give thanks also to Sam Roggeveen and Allan Gyngell.

The Column came about because in building the Lowy Institute, Allan decided he needed a blog not a printed journal; Lowy had to be in the game every day, not monthly or quarterly or whenever. It seems more of an obvious a call today than it did then. Having got that right, Allan then achieved the perfect fit for the editor's job in Sam Roggeveen. I don't need to tell you why Sam is a good editor – you have the evidence before you every time you look at The Interpreter.

I came on board by arguing to Allan that if he was doing journalism, then a Canberra journalist might be handy. That handshake with Allan and the Roggeveen combination of competence and ambition have happily driven my bit of the experiment; for a few idle seconds it was going to be the Canberra Causerie, but there are some things even The Interpreter should not try to translate.

Breaking the iron habit of a lifetime in daily journalism, the column had no deadline: file when finished, rather than finish because it's time to file. Luxury! The digital domain offers many freedoms. No longer driven by the daily hack version of the Cartesian mantra (write now, think later) I have, instead, been able to enjoy the related pleasure James Reston ascribed to writing a regular column: how do I know what I think until I see what I write?

I am off next year to repeat the experience at a similar address just up the street at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Farewell to the Canberra Column; it has been a privilege and a huge pleasure to write for this audience in this place. Thanks and cheers.

Photo by Flickr user Don Shearman.