Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Rudd

What is the Coalition’s foreign policy?

There is a good piece in this mornings Canberra Times (no online copy) by the up & coming Australian academic Carl Ungerer arguing that the debate about foreign policy has effectively been forgotten, with even the arguments about boat people reduced to simply questions of Australian control, without international or regional reference.

Ungerer lays much of the blame for this at the feet of the Liberal Party, and it’s a fair cop. A look at the National Security page on the Liberal party homepage is almost exclusively focused on immigration and border protection (against migrants). Likewise when the President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke before the Australian Parliament, the only topic the leader of the Opposition raised was that of asylum seekers. Obviously Indonesia is critical to that question, but issues such as when Indonesia will pass laws criminalising people smuggling (as the Howard government convinced much of the region to do in 2002-2006) were entirely absent.

The media must also wear some blame, given the way they let economics crowd out all other issues. Economics is critical, but every Australian government since time immemorial has said national security is the primary role of government.

While a February Newspoll showed that the Rudd government was slightly behind on national security, the latest Essential Report (PDF) presents a very different story) when people are asked specifically about foreign policy (H/T Crikey):

The Prime Minister scores strongly in terms of approval of his handling of foreign relations, with 50% approving and 32% disapproving, although the result tends to follow party lines. Labor also holds a strong lead (41-27%) over the Coalition in terms of who is trusted more on handling foreign affairs, with 22% saying no difference — suggesting the Howard Government’s strong record on foreign relations and national security has faded from memory…. Voters’ responses on individual countries also suggests why the Government has developed a strong reputation on foreign affairs. Asked how important relations with a number of countries were, 59% said close relations with the United States were very important, 56% said New Zealand and 51% said China. While the Rudd Government has had difficulties in its relationship with Beijing, it has also been associated with increased Chinese investment and the Prime Minister’s personal connections with the country. Rudd also quickly established a good relationship with President Obama, especially through the GFC and the establishment of the G20 as the primary international economic grouping.Moreover, 33% of voters actually want Australia to have a closer relationship with China

One explanation for this shift may be the loss of Malcolm Turnbull who had a much more worldly image than the more parochial Abbott, but primarily it seems the mere fact Rudd brings both experience and gets to daily implement foreign policy (even if commentators are only giving him about a B+), along with the noted gap in interest let alone policy by the opposition which have lead to this clear result. Labor will also be hoping that with Fitzgibbon’s resignation from Defence fading, and recent changes to slow the influx of boat people will further cement their dominance.

The only really odd part is that with such dominance and the coalition showing no ability to fight back, why isn’t Rudd doing even more to attack the coalition on such issues. Obviously he ought not go as far as Keating did to Howard in 1996 by claiming Asia wont work with Abbott, but he can suggest that only he would be able to extract the most benefit for Australia from our regional links due to his stronger knowledge of the region.

Meanwhile, Rudd is far from bulletproof on this. He hasn’t -yet-dedicated the resources to the role he has endorsed for Australia as a ‘creative middle power’, and his goals sometimes clash, His desire to stop whaling has hurt the relationship with the Japanese, which is crucial to help his vision of a new Asia Pacific Community; meanwhile his relationship with China is even harder due to his attempt to earn a UN seat. These are worthy goals, but his overall competence could be challenged. Let’s hope Abbott & Bishops policy boffins are paying attention and writing a policy displaying at least some level of overall strategic thought to deliver prior to the election (And with the highly capable former International Relations academic Senator Russel Trood in their ranks its a crime the Coalition has been so woeful and quiet on foreign policy issues). But they’ll need to hurry as time is surely running out and public perceptions solidifying.

The mis-steps of a young romeo named Tony

In many ways John Howard governed like a man with a wife (business) and a mistress (populist conservatives). This charming little solicitor from sydney was surprisingly adept at keeping his two partners happy, ensuring they were kept well apart, and each receiving equal, though carefully chosen presents. Of course his wife and mistress knew of each other (how could they not), but they forgave him, so long as he got the anniversaries right.

In 1998 Howard gave the big present to the wife via a GST, while his temperamental mistress flirted with a firery red-head from Queensland. Some begging on his part, and the smooth flow of cheaper petrol however saw the mistress returning to his embrace. In 2001, he shifted gears and the mistress got the big present: a gift wrapped Pacific Solution. The wife was consoled with an item that cost more but didn’t sparkle so bright: a healthy stock-portfolio and significant overall rises in migration levels. All was right in his happy little world, with three being perfect company. 2004 was perhaps the easiest anniversary of them all, as an arrogant young knight beat on the doors and stomped around outside, sending both partners running into his protecting arms. Of course, such happiness was not to last, and the once spritely charmer with lush eye-brows begun to tire. Before he left for that eternity in the members stand at the cricket, he decided to pass on the phone numbers of his two lovers & some tips to a young apprentice he had been grooming named Tony. While others desperately bid for his place, he was sure that if any man could look after his beloveds it would be Tony.

Only our young would-be Romeo, now finally able to take his place, has forgotten the old mans wise words and gotten himself utterly entranced by the mistress. Despite the old mans concern, Tony has seemingly forgotten the former wife and set off to shower the mistress with gifts. First offering her paid time off to manage any kids, and now a quieter environment with far less noisy neighbors. Meanwhile he has redoubled his efforts to keep himself fit and healthy, to ensure the mistress see’s his virility. She has, and is impressed.

But watching from the up-story apartment window, the ex-wife has noticed. She’s not quite the bombshell she once was, and the legacy of a near-stroke in 2008 still stings. But she was here first, and still to her mind is the prettiest of them all. More importantly she also has the old mans fortune and can give it to whoever she chooses.

Not that she thinks much of Tony’s rival, a nerdy suitor by the name of Kevin. She had largely ignored his early claims of fidelity, (wisely) as that too was broken in 2008, though he still claims it was for her own good. Yet as she watches a Lycra-clad Tony stretch and limber himself up, still trying to impress the younger mistress, she turns over the paper with Kevin’s number on it. Maybe she should give him a call, he after all has keys to a Bentley, and all Tony can offer her is his rotten bike. Yes, she will call him, but maybe after one more Gin & Tonic, after all, the sun is still up in the land of the lucky country.

Why Rudd needs to attend Obama’s Nuke Summit

Via The Lowy’s Rory Medcalf, comes this possibility that Kevin Rudd may miss Obama’s mid April Nuclear Summit:
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Looking North with Open Eyes

While everyone knows that Kevin Rudd speaks Mandarin, those watching the speeches accompanying the visit of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono over the last week would have noticed something else: Rudd also knows a little Indonesian too. While welcoming phrases in a guests own language are a standard part of pre-meeting briefings, the impetus was more likely from Rudd himself, for one of his major early career focuses was on making Australian’s more Asia-literate.

In 1994 Rudd delivered a report to the Federal Government on ways to make Australia a more Asia-Literate country. Though part of the wider Engagement project it was played down by the government because of populist fears that “engagement” was some sort of code word for selling the countries soul to the foreigners up north. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the concern was there. Rudd’s report, Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future, (Of which Deborah Henderson’s paper(pdf) provides a good overview & analysis) sought to create an export culture in australia via significant investment in the teaching of asian languages and building long term links to the region in education, media and business.
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The return of the DLP

In 1954, the ALP split for the third time in its history, with communism, or rather anti-communism being the issue. Herbert ‘doc’ Evatt was not capable of leading the Labor members at that time and he had lost the support of ALP voters after their third straight election loss. Post-war re-configurations of Australian society and a range of distorted personalities (Evatt & B.A Santamaria) combined to split the ALP and keep the party out of power for another 18 years. The Democratic Labor Party while publicly influential never amounted to much electorally or in policy terms, but in a way they represented a strong strain of Australian political thought, one that in some (less divisive) ways is making its comeback today. No chance of a split exists, but it is not hard to see similar philosophical strains within both major political parties, between their conservative wings (for the ALP the workers/union base, for the Liberals a religious upper middle class) and their liberal wings (the ALP’s inner city aspirations and the Liberals business class). Both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are firmly members of their own party’s conservative classes, and indeed a longer running sub-stream of Australian Conservatism which found its clearest form in the DLP. They represent in many ways the return of the DLP.
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Counter-Terrorism White Paper

Tuesday saw the release of the Rudd Governments first Counter-Terrorism White Paper (Get it here). It seems we are now duty bound to receive regular white papers on topics governments see as important (Defence, Aging, National Security principles & now on Terrorism – though no word on Foreign Policy) which is in the large a positive step, however this one feels somewhat like the homework done the night before, being slightly too glossy and superficial in parts. However this is an important document for the rhetorical shift it makes in how the government understands terrorism; first the causes and secondly who & how we fight it. It’s not entirely confident in its new positions (like the Defence Force 2030 White Paper), but the Rudd government is clearly shifting away from the Howard Government to attribute social & economic factors as drivers of terrorism, and is envisioning a role for Australia to fight the message war as well as the material one.

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People reject Rudd’s competence on National Security

The press may be focused intently on the story of economics & climate change polling, but todays Newspoll has an even bigger surprise hidden:
Newspoll.com.au

The lead Howard developed over Labor shouldn’t be too surprising in 2006, only 5 years from the 9/11 attacks, 4 from Bali, 3 from the War in Iraq. National Security competence can’t be delivered in bite sized policy announcements, it comes through being competent when faced with issues major and minor.

However leaders can have an impact, when Kevin Rudd the Mandarin speaking diplomat and shadow foreign affairs minister became Opposition leader Howard’s numbers dropped 8 points and Labors rose 10*. Since then Labor has steadily gained, with only a wobble just before the election (with the Coalition doing their best to make security an issue given that economics wasn’t working so well). But take a look at the latest results, where Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop(Shadow Foreign Affairs), & David Johnston(Shadow Defence) have gained a 6 point lead over Labor. Amazing. It’s Labors highest showing (just), but clearly many have switched back to the coalition from uncommitted, meaning it’s a positive switch towards the coalition.

I’m not sure the reasons why. Fitzgibbon is long enough gone from Defence (save the odd newspaper scandal) to be replaced by the stately Faulkner. Smith is a competent foreign minister and Rudd has had a mixed but certainly highly competent record. Labor has pulled troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan/The War on Terror is at least no worse than last year, perhaps even better & the Defence White paper pretty run of the mill. While Johnson has a long standing interest in this area he is unknown to the public, and Bishop only took this job because she was dumped from shadow treasurer. The comparison is most stark at the leadership level where you’d assume attention is focused. Rudd’s main focus after the GFC was international/regional issues, while Abbott seems yet to have addressed the issues as Opposition leader and devotes only 5 pages out of his 200 page book on the issue.

So why the drop? And what is giving the coalition such a strong showing?

* That the public saw Kevin Rudd as more capable on National Security issues over Kim ‘the bomber’ Beazley does make you ponder slightly about the public’s judgement.

Warning: Turbulence ahead

I’ve deliberately not been blogginig as much on domestic politics lately because it seems to me to have entered a swirling phase where clear outlines of either camps positions, strengths, weaknesses and direction are largely obscured. The reasons for these are many, the ‘inevitable’ ETS has collapsed, the GFC has finally passed having distracted the Rudd government from its agenda for its first 18 months, and most of all, Tony Abbott has taken over the leadership, giving the press gallery the long awaited contest they have been seeking.

Much like the early months of Mark Latham in 04 or Sarah Palin as VP candidate in the USA, Abbott’s election has given his base a 12 can injection of Red Bull, while the general public are still trying to work out what they think of the bloke. What passes for conventional wisdom in the press about Abbott is still largely based on snap reactions to him, rather than cultivated analysis of him as a leader. Take this missive from Laurie Oakes:
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It’s not just porn: Net filter will limit culture and public debate

I had such high hopes for Stephen Conroy as Communications Minister. After the corruption of Richard-what free tv-Alston and luddite Coonan (not to mention the decidedly not tech-savy Howard), Conroy seemed a breath of fresh air. Having watched him operate in several years of Estimates hearings, he clearly knew his way around a PC Whilst asking questions to officials (when in opposition) he often was able to quickly call up relevant data to challenge claims made by wayward or mis-informed ministers or their public servants. His boss may have been a bit socially conservative, but he could tweet & sms easily. That Conroy under Rudd’s direction has taken Australia into such a embarassing and frankly authoritarian direction online is therefore a great shame.
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Kevin and the kids

Watching the Q & A special last night featuring 200 school kids and the Prime Minister, many twitter’s (both journos and political junkies) wondered aloud how many Young Liberals were in the audience, such was their willingness to attack and push the Prime Minister on issue. The press this morning are declaring the kids victory

However, while the polls show reasonable support, it’s no surprise why Rudd is not popular with young voters (Those under 30). Here’s 4 major reasons why:
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A new (publicly owned) Bank?

Crikey has the scoop today that the Rudd government is considering allowing/pushing Australia post to expand its financial services into a full blown bank as a way of breaking up the stranglehold of the big four banks.

Crikey can reveal that the Rudd Government commissioned a scoping study into the establishment of a publicly-owned banking capability by Australia Post, with positive results. As Crikey detailed in August last year, Oz Post has been trying to address the long-term decline in postal volumes by encouraging mail marketing and exploiting its branch network to offer a wider range of the sort of services that still require interaction.

This already includes financial services under licence from several banks and up to 70 financial institutions in all, including business banking services from NAB and the Commonwealth. Last year, Australia Post itself began offering insurance services. About 3,300 Australia Post outlets offer external banking services now, just under three times the number of branches of the largest bank network, Westpac/St George.

While the economics have pros & cons, politically this strikes me as a very risky if not downright awful decision if followed through. Rudd already has a reputation as anti-market in the media (being a Labor MP, Stimulus spending, End of Neo-liberalism essay, keeping book tariffs etc). For a party trying to present itself as representing the future over its regressive opponents, going against the 30 year trend to privatization makes little sense. Endorsing the creation of a publicly owned bank would just about drive the economic liberals who dominate the editors/opinion leaders of the press insane and with them a chance to enshrine Labor as the default governing party for the next 20-30 years.

As I’ve argued before, many economic liberals have lost their suction to the Coalition after Howard’s departure. Rudd’s description of himself as an “economic conservative” and talk of efficiency and productivity through his investment in education lured many away. And now with Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce ruling the roost, the coalition isn’t the safe haven of support & re-enforcement it once was, indeed it’s looking decidedly shaky and populist.

Yet Rudd seems to have only made a half-hearted effort at recruiting them. He may talk of productivity as part of his Australia day (week) speeches, but his actions speak loudly to this skeptical and (somewhat paranoid) group. Rudds decision to not support a change in parallel imports of books despite the Productivity Commissions report is a perfect example of a policy with a relatively light cost (from a social democrat/arts supporter viewpoint) and much to gain. Indeed you could almost see the press gallery shift away from Rudd at the end of last year soon after this decision was announced (and even worse is that Rudd ‘excused’ himself in a split cabinet because one of his kids is writing a book). As an aside Bob Carr today makes the obvious point that the impending arrival of Apples badly named but oh so cool ipad makes the ALP’s decision laughable.

Establishing an aussie bank under Australia Post may appeal to many in the public superficially, but its positive political impact is likely to be small and slowly occurring, whilst re-enforcing a big government, big spending, big bureaucracy image that Abbott and the editors of the Australian are trying to pin on Rudd. This is not about the forthcoming election which is already in the bag, but a generational re-alignment of those of a liberal ideology both socially and economically who are giving Labor a fresh look they wouldn’t have considered during the 90s and most of the 2000′s. Creating a government owned Australia bank would probably scare them off, and with it a chance for Labor to establish political dominance for the next 20+ years. (Along with hopefully leading Labor to become more liberal in attitude which is why i want to see this occur along with its political benefits).

Of new media and new politics

In an otherwise interesting article on the role of new media and the Rudd Government, George Megalogenis (is there a better journalist working today?) writes:

To paraphrase Keating, when the media changes, so does the government. The wireless age marked the transition from Ben Chifley to Robert Menzies at the end of the 1940s. The colour TV age covered the shift to Gough Whitlam in the early 70s and, more tellingly, from Malcolm Fraser to Hawke in the 80s. The talkback radio age saw Howard eclipse Keating in the 90s. Now we are in the digital age, which began in 2007 when the young nerd, Rudd, trumped the old nerd, Howard.

That’s right, but precisely backwards. It is the leaders ability to utilise media that shapes its importance and their own dominance. Menzies was an undisputed king of TV when it first came in, just as FDR was able to make radio broadcasts his personal domain. Talk Radio wasn’t a new technology for the 1990′s, Howard simply returned to it as a medium in which his natural skills worked best, and that drove attention to it. Contra Megalogenis I don’t think that Rudd has made great use of twitter/blogs/websites, however he has at least done a damn sight better than the conservatives, and that matters (Obama’s advisors on the other hand made his website a key element of their electoral strategy).

There has always been a very strong link between journalists and politicians. Not in a biased way, but as a shared interest in the media and medium. Our second PM Alfred Deakin was a journalist & correspondent his whole life, as was Henry Parkes, Chris Watson, John Curtin, Malcolm Turnbull and his successor Tony Abbott. Our current PM wasn’t a journalist, but he spent his years in opposition being available for (if not inviting) media interviews at any time day or night. Just as you can’t be a good carpenter if you can’t handle a saw, or a good surgeon if you can’t weild a knife, a strength in using emerging media forms is critical to political success. I don’t see anyone in the current parliament who has a great handle on the new technology (here I think blogs have more potential than twitter), but Turnbull and Rudd both show at least a keen awareness. (As does Kate Lundy & Joe Hockey) Whoever does, is likely to become the dominant figure of the next 20 years. Let’s hope Abbott has some good new media advisors, but given his twitter account has only 7 (utterly boring) entries since becoming leader, it doesn’t seem likely.

Can Nerds deliver wedgies?

Our Prime Minister is by nature a conservative man. Nothing wrong with that, in fact it by and large contributed to his victory over John Howard where others before him such as Latham had tried and failed. Yet Rudd now faces an opponent who is seen as not just a common sense conservatie, ie a pragmatic cautious man (as Howard managed to claim for himself), but as a capital C Conservative, nay regressive who wants social change towards a long past (if ever existing) ideal.

Labor spent much of the 1990′s seeing Howard as a reactionary, while the public didn’t, but it might work with Tony Abbott. To be fair to Abbott, he isn’t anything like the theocons in the USA, and he is resigned to being in a minority and seeks mainly to argue for, rather than legislate his views on social morality and conservatism. However his election to the liberal party leadership represents a substantial opportunity for progressives.

The Labor party has already set about calling Abbott and crew ‘extremists’ (esp on climate change) but this is a ham-fisted way of making their point given the low level of public and media attention. It’s not that these groups arn’t paying attention, its just that this kind of language has been done to death and generally passes the ears unheard.

The future for Tony Abbott ?

Instead Rudd needs a policy challenge, to force Abbott to show his real views. An issue where he either says what he believes, alienating a public majority, or he goes along with Rudd’s policy, disenfranchising some of his core base. In short, it’s now the perfect time for Rudd to return the favour of 2001 and deliver a rather liberal wedgie to the Coalition, of the sort that wasn’t too viable against Howard, Nelson or Turnbull.

Issues that might play well include: Abortion funding and access (bringing it into federal control as a pre-cursor to full takeovers), relaxation of some drug laws, such as decriminalizing marijuana (as occurring in the US, and somewhat in the ACT), increased flexibility for euthanasia, granting civil unions nation wide (having already agreed to accept it in the ACT), or further opening up the country for foreign investment. The latter would alienate labor from some rural electorates, but could help divest a lot of economic liberal voters/few remaining city voters from the Coalition to Labors waiting hands. (I’d be keen to hear any readers suggestions of other issues that fit)

None of these are critical pressing issues, but each represents good policy and good politics. Too much was made of Howard’s wedge efforts against Labor, and they came to be seen as a dirty tactic (or at least a smelly one). But if Labor is implementing good policy that simply forces the opposition to choose between it’s core ideology and being in line with the mainstream, then there is nothing wrong with the approach.

More than that, it also offers progressives a way to shape an influential role within the Rudd government. This is a very cautious, poll driven government. So any policy proposed to it for implementation needs to be able to deliver strong electoral benefits. If progressives can offer policy that delivers votes for the government now, then it will create goodwill and credibility for advocating more significant and controversial reform in the future.

Choosing the specific issue and nature of the legislation will need careful polling and focus grouping, but it’s worth a trial now, early in the year before the defenses are re-erected for the years political combat. With luck, Labor might well get Abbott to simply respond at a door stop to a spreading rumor of new labor policy, without carefully organising his response. At worst, the effort will let Labor see how Abbott responds to new issues (does he wait, or will he just go ahead with his own response, and how will his independence play to his divided party room). At best, it gives Labor the chance to directly define Abbott as well outside the mainstream, and implement some good progressive policy.

Making an impact: Middle Powers #1

A key focus of my PhD is on the topic of middle powers, so over a few topics I want to explore the concept and how it relates to Australia.

The concept of ‘middle power’ countries is as old as the middle ages, yet there still arn’t any clear definitions other than playing on the concept of ‘middle’ as in not great and not small. In the 1980′s and 1990′s the term was made popular by both academics and politicians. Academics noted that middle could refer to economic/population size, geographic size or location (such as position between two great powers). Another option was the slightly tautological choice of those countries who didn’t have the physical resources to demand leadership yet still managed to insert themselves into international affairs as significant players (tautological because its a self-selected role, with no clear requirements).

Australia, (along with canada, brazil, israel and india) has been consistently identified as a middle power, going back as far as the 1940′s. The Hawke/Keating government strongly endorsed such an idea. Being a middle power to them seemed to express a significance of power to Australia that could be achieved in spite of our lack of economic/military/material power. The Howard government ridiculed this approach and whilst occasionally using the term sought out slight synonyms such as a “considerable power” whose status as 6th largest in land mass makes us important. But this was a minor debate, largely ignored and inspired by a petty anti-intellectual attack of the howard government on the Keating government’s foundations.

Yet such sideline intellectual spats have a real-world significance. The Rudd government has picked up the term in its documents and self-identification, and scholars have respond. Scholarship on the term middle powers peaked in the early 1990s and has largely ceased since 2000. (save Ping 2004 on south east asia). What’s more while the politicians don’t read such papers, their advisors and the media occasionally do, leading to language such as Tony Abbott’s last week:

Mr Abbott attacked Mr Rudd’s belief he may have been able to influence the outcome of an agreement struck at Copenhagen. ”I think that it was always a great conceit to think that Australia could save the world on its own,” he said.

”The Australian voice should be heard in the world but I think it’s wrong for people like Mr Rudd to imagine that they can be much more than the mouse that roared.”

This is a logical outcome of the Howard Governments abandonment of the term middle power. Yet instead of it leading to a ‘realist’ assessment of Australia’s status, in the hands of Abbott, it seems a requirement to cower and hide our laurels. That Australia ought to recognise and keep to its place in the world in a ‘mouse’ like response to the giants wandering above. Such sentiments are similarly found out on the libertarian fringes of the Aus blogosphere over at catalaxyfiles:

Our Prime Minister has returned from Copenhagen, triumphant in having performed his role as Friend of the Chair at COP15 to almost universal acclaim… Admittedly, the Conference achieved nothing much of substance but we know that the Prime Minister will have done his duty with distinction. Without him it would probably have achieved nothing at all…..
Remember when the Keating government produced a series of policy pronouncements called things like “Working Nation” and “Creative Nation”? My guess is that the Prime Minister might be motivated to add to these with “Good Nation”: a plan to make our country Good, in fact to become the Goodest nation in the world. He will have been inspired by the feeling he got in Copenhagen when a grateful meeting greeted his arrival with a standing ovation: “You are the only one who can rescue this” they cried.

Yet both these responses beg the question : What is the alternative?

Take Copenhagen. It certainly didn’t deliver the response which Australia wanted. But take a look at those countries who were in the final critical meeting: USA, China, India, Brazil, South Africa. Of these countries, only South Africa has a lower GDP, and that liut excludes 10 countries with bigger economies than Australia (and thats including all EU countries as one). So what should Rudd have done instead ? Reticence? Apathy? Denialism (as some of Abbott’s colleagues would have us do) Though he has not the courage nor conviction to take a clear stand on the issue.

What other approach than Rudd’s creative middle power diplomacy would have earned Australia a significant role at the Copenhagen conference? We may not have been at the final meeting, but Rudd and Wong had significant roles both before (as close advisors to US president Barack Obama) and at the conference as friends of the chair and leaders of a country respected for its actions on combating climate change.

Wait. I tell a lie. Had Australia passed its CPRS legislation it would have been a developed country who had committed to wear the economic cost to ensure protection of the environment, yet instead thanks to Abbott’s reticence, the critical bargaining chip that Australia had to play: our ideological commitment was denied to the rudd government for nothing more than a short term partisan black eye by the opposition.

While Downer in 2003 tried to claim that labor was an isolationist party that undermined Australian strength with it’s label of middle power, it’s the conservatives who more often seem to underestimate the position and power of this country. While the support for the USA as a great protector is straight out of a realist IR theory playbook, the unwillingness to challenge any elements within the relationship, and the general reticence or interest in international affairs is a common feature of conservatives in Australia. It was not until the events of East Timor that the Howard Government gained the self-confidence to seriously engage with the Asia-Pacific. It’s first years were halting and unsure, a far cry from the end of the Keating years under Evans, and even Rudd’s confident first term. Realism as a theory of International relations plays a critical role in ensuring countries protect their own survival first, but its rigid hierarchies can lead to countries forgoing opportunities for increasing their wealth or status, roles that can eventually increase their chance of survival.

None of this proves the worth of a middle power concept or a country taking on such a role. But it is a worthwhile starting point noting that the main criticisms of the concept of ‘middle power’ countries are either based around (consciously or not)denigrating the country as a ‘mouse’ in world affairs -whilst denying it useful bargaining chips-, or attacks that simply to mock the idea that anything but powerful a-moral strategies can work in international politics. They are shallow and partisan, and none actually engage the real question of how much influence a country like Australia an have in world affairs.

Next week, I want to engage the views of serious academic commentators such as Hugh White and others on the topic of Middle powers, but given this is Boxing day, it seems a fitting time to throw the first punch in rejuvenating the concept at an academic and public level.

Can Australia play a meaningful role in nuclear disarmament? Pt 1

Water+nuclear+bomb+-+by+AlifaanTomorrow, December 15th, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will be in Japan with his counterpart to launch the new report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament(ICNND). Co-Chaired by Former Keating Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, this report is Rudd’s first (and perhaps biggest) shot at making Australia a key player in ending the proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and planning for their eventual disarmament.

Once the report is out, I’ll do an assessment of Rudd’s approach, but for the time being I want to quickly look at the Hawke and Keating Governments actions on Nuclear Weapons and how they should inform Rudd’s actions.

While the Hawke Government was significantly concerned about the issue of nuclear weapons, it’s power to achieve any change during the cold war was obviously limited (Although this was a period of significant disarmament successes). Instead it set about addressing issues like Chemical Weapons, via a range of non-politicised conferences and workshops, building a coalition of major chemical exporting states, and extensive engagement with expert advisors who could both run the education campaigns, and bring the chemical industry onside for aiding negotiations and export controls. The Hawke Government also managed to sign the Treaty of Rarotonga, or South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, an approach that has been replicated in Asia, Africa and Central-Asia. Interestingly domestic concern over nuclear weapons peaked during this period (such as the Nuclear Disarmament Party lead by future ALP minister Peter Garrett), however it was largely dismissed by the Government who wanted to continue supporting Americas nuclear shield and related alliance issues.

The Keating Government came to power with the end of the Cold War imminent, unleashing ‘unprecedented and possibly unrepeatable opportunity’ for change in the eyes of Paul Keating. It continued the Hawke governments desire for Australian involvement in stopping the flow of nuclear weapons and disarmament, however there was a more conscious question of identity involved in the governments actions. Keating & Evans wanted Australia to ‘be and be seen to be a good international citizen’, and no cause was more clearly in line with this than preventing the development, testing, sale or use of nuclear weapons. However in 1995 when the French announced a series of Atomic Tests at Mururoa Atoll in the pacific the government suddenly had to make good on its nice sounding words. The actions of the French outraged the Australian population, and little the government did seemed to satisfy the public. In part prompted by recent events, the Keating Government set up the Canberra Commission to report on the elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which the Coalition reluctantly pledged to support if they won office.

While waiting for the report, the Keating Government also participated in an International Court of Justice case on the legality of Nuclear weapons. Represented by Foreign Minister Gareth Evans Q.C, Australia argued that it is ‘illegal not only to use or threaten use of nuclear weapons, but to acquire, develop, test or possess them’. (Evans however, like Hawke before him was careful to argue that any views Australia had should not be taken as offering commentary on the alliance with the nuclear armed USA). The court was not quite persuaded, and in a split decision held that ‘the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law’. However they could not rule on the legality of their use as a tool of survival or self-defense. Little was expected from the case (the Nuclear Weapons powers states would ignore even a unanimous decision against them), but it showed the range of arenas in which the government was willing to act to push their case.

The voters had other issues on their mind and in March 1996 Keating and Evan’s were tossed from office, and the Canberra Commission report emerged into the arms of a very reluctant step-father. The new foreign minister Alexander Downer went through the motions launching the report and taking it to the Convention on Disarmament in 1997, but without strong Australian backing, it was hard for other countries to get excited.

However – The Canberra Commission report of 1996 is still one of the pre-eminent documents on addressing the question of nuclear weapons ever produced. In the coming years it received strong support from India, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Austria, Sweden and Brazil. To the Nuclear Weapons states, it offered a pragmatic and sensible recognition of their core security needs, to the non-nuclear weapons states it offered a clear draft with viable steps for taking action. The Canberra Commission centered around three main proposals: a cut-off convention; no-first-use agreements; and support for nuclear weapons free zones. Unfortunately without any significant Australian government support the effort spluttered out of energy, and the Clinton Administration, having previously embraced the new found optimism of the post-cold war period was distracted by domestic issues. Still, a look at any of the major commentary on nuclear weapon control and disarmament will show you finger prints of the Canberra commission.

Finally, while the Howard Government effectively ignored their predecessors efforts to eliminate or even reduce nuclear weapons (except in the case of nuclear terrorism), they did recognise one asset in the effort which this country has above all others: Uranium deposits. While Labors internal debate prevents any real use of this resource (even under Rudd), the Howard government realised the role which Australia as a leading world supplier of Uranium could play in both controlling and influencing the way in which nuclear weapons and nuclear power was developed in the world. While still early days, (even they ran into significant domestic complaint), this is an asset which gives Australia a unique strength amongst the many other middle power countries who want to see an end to nuclear weapons. As yet, we have not had either an opportunity to exploit this resource diplomatically, or a government with enough popular support in the area to do so, but it remains a valuable potential.

In re-starting Australia’s efforts towards nuclear disarmament, Rudd showed his strong desire to learn from the Hawke-Keating governments in choosing Gareth Evans to Co-Chair the commission (along with Japans former foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi). But as this quick survey shows, it needs to go beyond just Evans. Having studied some of this for a chapter in my PhD, it seems clear that the following requirements of Australia’s promotional effort will have to be in place:

1) The report has to be pragmatic and offer concrete suggestions.
2) It has to bring both Nuclear and Non-Nuclear weapons states along and recognise the different needs of both.
3) The further it can be de-politicised the better. Involving experts (again linked to suggestion 1) is critical to credibility and making it an issue of management and specifics, rather than grand empty principles.
4) The continued activity of the Australian government to push this will be critical. While few doubt the energy of Rudd 24/7, this is something where he may,perhaps, just, see initial results for in his final term. Continued pressure rather than once off launches are key (and why is it being launched during Copenhagen & at the end of the year??)
5) The Labor party will need to resolve division on uranium and seek ways to strategically exploit this resource, or at least let other countries know we could.
6) The US alliance and nuclear shield for Australia somewhat demonstrates Australia’s hypocrisy, however, and this is a big however, our clear understanding of the security needs of nuclear weapons states gives us an increased credibility. Important to all this will be the views and actions of Barack Obama and perhaps even moreso the US Congress. Obama gave a great speech in Prague, but unless he can convince skeptical conservative democrats like Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and sees changes to the destructive minority veto of the filibuster, all his support in the world wont see political change. Australia needs to stay in the alliance, and ahead of the US helping to guide its path along, without getting so far away that Obama can’t see our lights.

So, cautiously, we can say that Australia already has a strong reputation as a country that is both serious and committed to address the proliferation and disarmament of nuclear weapons. A serious effort by Rudd, building on this success could return momentum to a path that stalled in the 1980′s & 1990′s. To do that, we need to lead with experts rather than politicians, be relentlessly pragmatic, and maintain a determination to keep at it for as long as it takes.

Later in the week, once i’ve digested the new ICNND report, I’ll come back and discuss how Rudd’s doing on that score.