The Rudd stuff

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 08/04/08):

As Lionel Shriver once said, we need to talk about Kevin. It’s not as though Australia’s prime minister is likely to shoot up the school gym. But if hypercritical domestic media are to be believed, Kevin Rudd, elected amid a national sigh of relief last November and now making his first overseas foray, has a lot of personal problems.

Policy wonk, nerdy control freak, bureaucrat-in-chief, charisma-free bore and junketeer are some of the kinder epithets the whingeing Aussies have applied to the man who ousted the long-serving conservative John Howard.

Rudd has been forced to deny he is a robot, defend his “quirky” sense of humour, and rebut claims he is a US lackey after he jokingly saluted George Bush.

The Labour party leader is an avowed republican, so his weekend audience with the Queen at Windsor Castle was closely watched for signs of lese-majesty or other insurrectionary behaviour. Instead, the conversation began like this. Queen: “The weather is better than it was yesterday evening.” Rudd: “The snow was extraordinary.”

Nowadays Rudd says sacking the Queen as Australia’s head of state is “not a top order priority”.

And then there is the name: Kevin, which to some ears smacks more of Basildon boozers or billabong backwaters than international statesmanship. Rudd deflects the sneer by cheerfully emphasising his ordinariness. “My name is Kevin, I’m from Queensland, and I’m here to help,” he famously told his party conference last year. He went on to win big.

On substantial matters of policy, Rudd lacked vision, a crusty editorial in the Australian complained last week. “At this point in his premiership, [he] appears to be most interested in perpetuating what seems to be a love-in of convenience with his followers. His current world trip has included a lot of meetings designed to make Mr Rudd look important on the television news.”

Judging by his performance in London and at Nato’s Bucharest summit, however, that verdict – and the ad hominem attacks – seems off target. Rudd, whose first act as prime minister was to ratify the Kyoto protocol, agreed a series of measures to combat climate change, advance the millennium development goals, and reform international financial institutions.

While fulfilling his promise to pull out of Iraq, Rudd has kept the Bush administration sweet by recommitting Australian troops to Afghanistan. And with a visit to Beijing beginning tomorrow, the Mandarin-speaking PM’s claim to be one of the west’s better informed China interlocutors is considerable.

Speaking at the London School of Economics on Monday, Rudd acknowledged Australia’s growing dependency on China’s markets, where demand for iron ore, uranium, coal and wheat is fuelling a 17th consecutive year of Australian growth, budget surpluses and rising incomes. Concerns have also been raised over Chinese moves to buy controlling stakes in Australian companies.

Traditional allies and trade partners such as Japan worry, meanwhile, that developing Canberra-Beijing ties presage a political and strategic shift. Rudd visited Washington but his current world tour does not include Japan. “We favour increased regional cooperation, but Rudd has got his priorities wrong,” a senior Japanese diplomat said.

Rudd said China’s growing economic power and enhanced global security role, plus its importance in effective environmental protection, meant closer political links with Beijing were essential. “I will do whatever I can to get China on the bus in defence of common interests such as climate change,” he said.

But that did not mean he would dodge sensitive human rights issues such as the pre-Olympics crackdown in Tibet. “It’s a very complex business, dealing with China on these issues,” he said. “Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty [since China’s modernisation process began]. But there’s still a very real problem with human rights. That’s the reality.”

He would be urging China’s representatives to restart a dialogue with the Dalai Lama while stressing that governments round the world continue to recognise Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, he said. “It will be a very difficult set of discussions.”

Rudd has coined a wonkish phrase to describe his approach to China and other foreign policy issues: “creative middle power diplomacy.” Despite past Labour criticism of Howard’s subservience to Washington, he stresses the ongoing importance to Australia of the US alliance, multilateralism via the UN and the EU, and “comprehensive engagement” with Asia and the Pacific.

Contrary to what his detractors say, this does not suggest a lack of strategic vision. Rudd the robot’s problem may lie elsewhere. For the Australian right, at least, this bloke is way too brainy.