Saturday 30 May 2020 | 07:12 | SYDNEY
Saturday 30 May 2020 | 07:12 | SYDNEY

Rudd two years on: The see-saw report


Graeme Dobell

24 November 2009 11:52

The second anniversary today of the election of the Rudd Government is a chance to apply the see-saw measure to Labor's international efforts.

The see-saw test recognises the reality that governments have only so much energy and time. Not every issue gets top priority. Some issues rise, some fall. So consider what the see-saw tells us about the priorities of the first two years of Kevinism.

The central reality of the Rudd Government's first two years has been the Global Financial Crisis and voters get to judge the Government's performance handling that in the coming 12 months.

The crisis shows again that no government every really chooses the international ground on which it will fight. The judgement is usually on how an administration responds to what lands on its plate, not whether the policy menu it carried into office actually predicted the major ingredients it confronted.

Rudd and Labor came to power as more avowedly multilateralists than the Howard Government. On the rising side of the multilateral see-saw, put the Kyoto process, the G20, nuclear disarmament and the effort to win a seat on the UN Security Council.

What got less multilateral attention? On the down side of the see-saw, put APEC and the WTO. APEC has given way to shinier toys and the rest of the world has also stopped worrying too much about the Doha Round, despite the nagging of Simon Crean.

The bilateral free trade agenda inherited from Howard has also landed on the down side of the see-saw. The bilateral negotiations with China have been on hold for nearly a year. Indeed, the China relationship has just gone through a dramatic bit of up-down action. The most China-literate foreign leader in the world got a bruising from Beijing. The bombast and biffo were so intense for a couple of months, the terms of the diplomatic ceasefire had to be put down in unusually explicit written form.

The relationship with the other Asian giant also had its moments. For India's mass media and populace the issue was the bashing of Indian students in Australia while the policy types in New Delhi are nearly as agitated at Labor's refusal to sell uranium to India (a policy Howard was edging towards abandonment).

In dealing with Chinese investment and uranium sales to India, the Rudd Government has shown some ability to say 'no'. That is as it should be, but it does provide some see-saw moments.

The big relationship which has been on the up-and-up is the one where the initial fireworks were expected — with the United States. Rudd has had a smooth — even positive — ride from two vastly different administrations in Washington.

Rudd withdrew Australia from Iraq. But Labor told the US what it intended to do, consulted constantly, and moved deliberately. The withdrawal was not so much 'cut and run' as a measured stroll. On Saturday, a welcome-home march took place at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to mark the end of Australia's military operations in Iraq. For Australian politics, Iraq is moving from the front pages to the history pages. The war that now matters is Afghanistan.

If Iraq was John Howard's war, then Kevin Rudd's words and actions mean he has taken political ownership of Afghanistan.

Photo by Flickr user Arthaey, used under a Creative Commons license.