Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 07:31 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 07:31 | SYDNEY

Simon Crean: Playing well with others?


Graeme Dobell

22 May 2009 11:58

The relationship between Australia’s Trade Minister and Australia’s Foreign Minister starts off at frigid and just climbs to proper.
One of those on Simon Crean’s side of the fence describes his dealings with Stephen Smith as ‘professional’ — make that a small ‘p’ professional. A senior DFATer is a bit blunter about the temperature between the two Ministers who head the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: ‘They can hardly bear to be in the same room with each other.’

This column will look at Simon Crean’s dealings with Kevin Rudd,  Stephen Smith and DFAT. A second column will consider Crean’s performance as Trade Minister. Then I’ll attempt a similar mid-term assessment of Smith as Foreign Minister.

Crean’s relationship with Rudd and his minimal-talkies, minimal-contact dealings with Smith rest on rich lode of political history. Smith is one of the ‘roosters’, the ALP cabal that successfully plotted to knife Crean as Party leader and return Kim Beazley to the throne. Crean, in turn, was a key plotter – even the outside king-maker – who put together the Kevin-Julia dream team to overthrow Beazley.

The feelings of Australia’s Trade Minister for Australia’s Foreign Minister attest to the rule that in politics your true enemies sit beside you, not opposite you. The frigid relationship between the two Ministers at the top of DFAT has been given relatively little attention because of the much greater focus on the policy dominance of the Prime Minister. (More on that in my upcoming Smith column.)

Plus, in the gossip hothouse of Parliament, the fact of bad blood between Smith and Crean is such old news it counts as ancient history. This is an enmity from BKK (Before Kevin was King), that long-ago time when beasts with names like Latham and Beazley still roamed the jungle.

Crean ranks with John Faulkner as one of the ‘adults’ in Cabinet — former ministers from Labor’s previous time in office. Crean’s has a unique place as a previous Minister, previous leader and kingmaker to Kevin. That status is evidenced by Crean’s membership of the Expenditure Review Committee (ERC) of Cabinet. The ‘razor gang’ is the engine that drives government. The ERC makes the final calls on what gets approved and what gets flicked. Membership gives a minister an unrivalled overview of how Government machinery is running.

From the DFAT perspective, the interesting thing to note is how little impact the frost between Smith and Crean has had on the day-to-day running of the Department. Mark that down to the professionalism of the two politicians and to the clear demarcation of their two different ministerial spheres. When the two ministers actually have to do something together in public, negotiations and compromises take place between their two offices in Parliament House, rather than down the hill in DFAT.

The lack of public sparks between Smith and Crean points to a structural truth about DFAT: it is still possible to discern two separate empires residing within the one Department. Even after 20 years as a unified entity, plenty of territory in DFAT is still distinctly Trade. The Liberal-National Party Coalition has been part of this story. While Bob Hawke mashed (or meshed) Trade and Foreign Affairs together in 1987, the merger was still being questioned by the Coalition almost to the moment of the electoral victory in 1996.

Tim Fischer, as National Party leader and deputy Prime Minister, claimed his inheritance. He would take the Trade Ministry that had belonged as of right to McEwan and Anthony. The sacred tribal land would be retained by the Country Party. Indeed, Tim had mused in Opposition about again making Trade a separate ministry.

Alexander Downer, for his part, also talked relatively openly to journalists in  late ’95 and early ’96 about the political difficulties involved in taking over the combined DFAT. Downer posed the question: was it possible to have two Ministers in DFAT when the deputy Prime Minister was the ‘junior’ minister’? The Coalition decided to maintain the merged DFAT. Tim Fischer insisted he would be Trade Minister. And any suggestion that the minister doing Trade was the ‘junior’ was gently forgotten.

The Nationals doing Trade and the Liberals doing Foreign maintains some of the separate DNA. When Labor is in office, the sense of separation is still there because of the need to service two senior ministers doing their own thing. DFAT is big enough for the two ministerial orbits to stay separated for much of the time.

The freeze between Smith and Crean is probably the most pronounced of DFAT’s history. However, the process is carried on mostly through gritted teeth. For the loudest and sharpest confrontations between Labor ‘colleagues’, you need to go back to the period when Peter Cook was Trade Minister and Gareth Evans was Foreign Minister.

When next you are going through the main entrance to the DFAT building, pause and admire the foundation stone marking the start of construction, which was jointly unveiled by Cook and Evans. The negotiations over the details of that ceremony and the memorial stone are remembered as a major exercise in shuttle diplomacy and delicate negotiation between the ministerial suites.