Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 19:25 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 19:25 | SYDNEY

Foreign Minister: Best-dressed blues


Graeme Dobell

17 June 2009 09:44

Stephen Smith looks like the Foreign Minister from central casting: the most dapper occupant of the job since Casey.

That attention to detail carries over into Smith's approach to being Foreign Minister. Smith may not have taken many big steps, but he has not really put a foot wrong, and just getting the job done without making big mistakes counts as a political achievement. Compare Smith's first year to the horror that engulfed Downer. At times during Downer’s initial year, he was only one more mishap from ministerial oblivion.

So it may not thrill press gallery or catch the attention of the voters, but Smith gets marks for being safe, hard working and competent.

Unfortunately, safe can also look and sound like hesitant and painfully cautious. And it’s when you raise the lens and ask broader questions about vision, direction or innovation that the assessment becomes harsher.

Smith’s starting problem with foreign affairs was that he’d never contemplated the job (nor probably wanted it). Talk about Labor’s commitment to on-the-job training. So Smith started off doing foreign policy as a faint recitation of Kevin Rudd’s old talking points. The three pillars policy crafted by Rudd — the US alliance, multilateralism and Asian engagement — became the vital supports, and explicit reference points, for much of what Smith was able to say in public.

The Foreign Minister also developed, and still displays, a reliance on  bits of expert jargon that he throws in to interviews. A Smith favourite is his constant use of the ’nation state’. Very Westphalian. The realist language might indicate a minister who doesn’t see too many caring and sharing mates around his borders. A previous column about Simon Crean’s work as Trade Minister noted his frigid relationship with Smith. No ally there.

Smith’s Parliamentary Secretaries, Bob McMullan and Duncan Kerr, are both experienced politicians and former ministers. They have tended to bump up against Smith’s caution in pushing policy issues in aid and the South Pacific. Getting a Smith decision can take some time.

The topic of who makes the decision brings us to Mr K Rudd. Smith is a Foreign Minister with direct control over areas such as Africa and the Pacific. Bigger and brighter toys belong to the Prime Minister. The next column — and the other half of this mid-term review — will look at those issues of policy and people.