Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:36 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:36 | SYDNEY

The Prime Minister foreign minister


Graeme Dobell

22 June 2009 10:44

The scene is the cavernous foyer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra. The event is the annual drinks session for the diplomatic corps, hosted by the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, and the Trade Minister, Simon Crean. The foyer is big enough for the two ministers to happily circulate well away from each other.

Stephen Smith should be able to relax and feel the power. But, wait! The Foreign Minister isn’t being stroked or besieged by the assembled diplomats. The man of the centre of it all is the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Smith can’t even do his own diplomatic drinks without being upstaged by The Kevin.

As noted in the previous column in this mid-term assessment of the Foreign Minister, Smith has a safe pair of hands. It’s just that the scope to put those hands to work is circumscribed by Rudd. John Howard was the über Defence Minister in his government. Kevin Rudd is his own über Foreign Minister.

Smith gets Africa and the South Pacific while much else belongs to Rudd. The Prime Minister launches and runs Australia’s campaign on an Asia Pacific community. He tends to China. And if there’s to be a campaign to get a seat on the UN Security Council, then Rudd will dispatch his top international policy adviser to be the Australian ambassador at the UN.

Starting with nil background, Smith has been busy coming to understand his job. He has been clocking up the travel miles and doing the trips. Even China is no longer off limits. Clearly, though, Smith is doing more of the administering than the making of policy.

The personal dynamics matter, though much of the personal history is subsumed. Smith helped cut down Crean as Labor leader and fought to stop Rudd snatching the job from Beazley. Smith cannot look to either Rudd or Crean as personal allies. Even Smith’s relationship with his two Parliamentary Secretaries is complicated by the reality that both are former Ministers. Bob McMullan and Duncan Kerr are as interested in carving out their own space as they are in working through Smith.

Despite all this, DFAT seems to be working relatively smoothly. The Department is subject to Rudd oversight, but not quite the hyper-control the Prime Minister is insisting on in some other departments. The relationships between the politicians at the top of DFAT is what you’d expect from senior players — professional and proper.

The ironies of politics mean that Smith’s most uncomplicated alliance is with a fellow machine man who made his career working for John Howard. Michael L’Estrange has the distinction of having being appointed secretary of DFAT by John Howard and reappointed by Kevin Rudd.

The attraction for Smith in keeping L’Estrange was that he, at least, is not a Rudd man. L’Estrange came into office with Howard in 1996. It was L’Estrange, as Cabinet secretary, who wielded the axe to lop the heads off six departmental secretaries (including Michael Costello at DFAT). Howard sent L’Estrange to be Australia’s High Commissioner in London and then brought him home to head DFAT. And when Labor returned to power, L’Estange’s head was patted afresh, rather than being lopped.

Smith and L’Estrange are accomplished apparatchiks, with a deep understanding of politics and the mechanics of power. They are close in age and physique and similar in their dress codes and personal style. In the words of a DFAT insider: ’They are both lawyers. And they are both conservative, middle class Catholics.’

On his first day as secretary of DFAT, L’Estrange wore a coloured business shirt, to signify an end to the white shirt regime (and mentality) of his predecessor, Ashton Calvert. But L’Estrange’s natural caution mirrors the instincts of his Minister. While L’Estrange and Smith have got a budget increase for DFAT, there hasn’t been much expansion in policy reach. Any ambition is announced and driven by the Prime Minister.

The Defence end of Canberra, for instance, was surprised at how little influence DFAT had on the debates about China that shaped the Defence White Paper. Much more push and pull came from Rudd and one of the key instruments in his department, the Office of National Assessments.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.