Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:52 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:52 | SYDNEY

The passion of Simon Crean


Graeme Dobell

25 May 2009 15:17

You can operate quite successfully as Trade Minister while hardly talking to the Foreign Minister, the point of  my  earlier column on Simon Crean.

The difference between Crean and Stephen Smith was shown in the way they took up their ministerial posts.   Crean, the discarded ex-leader and former minister, dived into Trade like a man reborn. The energy and the commitment marked Crean as one of the quick starters and continuing successes of the ministry. The Crean verve contrasted with the disciplined care and caution of a new Foreign Minister confronting a job he’d never contemplated (and probably never wanted).

Crean’s approach to the Doha Round has been that of a man who lectures his staff on persistence as one of the key political virtues. The Round may be helpless, but it will not die quietly if Crean can help it.

The multilateral round slipping between coma and fever, Crean has had to take his wins from the regional agenda bequeathed by the previous government. His key ministerial achievement has been to finalise the free trade agreement between Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN.

The personal achievement has been to plunge into the joys and trials of government without once seeming to touch the scar tissue of his leadership wounds. This is a mark of great self-discipline, dealing daily with political colleagues and journalists once despised as bastards and enemies.

Crean does not push his prerogatives too hard. But he is not as answerable to the headmaster (the Prime Minister) as some of his ministerial colleagues. Take the sensitive topic of visits to China. It has been noted that the Prime Minister rather than his Foreign Minister has made most of the running on setting foot in the Middle Kingdom.

Simon Crean, by contrast, has made five visits to China. Crean was actually in Beijing when he fired the sharpest political response to the Opposition attempts to portray Kevin Rudd as the Manchurian candidate. 

We’ve got to be confident about the nature of the relationship, not fear it. And people who whip up xenophobic feelings do not serve the country well.  Now, at no stage have we been handmaidens to the Chinese.  It’s been a constructive dialogue, both in Opposition and in Government, and that’s the way we’ll continue to conduct it. We need to have belief in our own capacity, we need to have understanding of the importance and of the interdependency of the two economies, and we need to forge a stronger, more mature relationship that’s reflective of it and secures the respective futures going forward.

The five trips to China have all been devoted to tending the negotiations with Beijing for a free trade agreement. But Crean has not been prepared to make a deal with China for the sake of clinching a deal. He wants a trade victory, not a political symbol. And getting a high quality deal would help fend off jibes about Rudd as China’s roving ambassador.

The criticism Crean made from Opposition about the China process has been proved agonizingly correct. At the start of the negotiations, the Howard Government gave Beijing the one thing it really wanted from Australia: recognition of China’s status as a market economy. Having pocketed that reward, China doesn’t see any need to agree to Australia’s demands on difficult issues of agriculture and services.

Crean says that if China isn’t ready to get serious, the process can go to the back burner. Australia would turn its energies to players more ready to make a deal, such as South Korea. Launching the new negotiations with Seoul, Crean talked about the need for ‘a comprehensive and commercially meaningful FTA with South Korea – one that allows us to expand the traditional elements of what is already a very substantial commercial relationship, but also opens up new opportunities, particularly in services and investment.’

The language is a direct lift of the words Crean has been directing at China in attacking the way the talks have ‘bogged down.’ The message to Beijing is that others might be more willing to broaden and deepen. The barb was sharpened by the Crean comment that the ‘talks with Korea show what political will can do if it's injected.’

Crean’s performance, too, is a demonstration of political will.