Australia's Change of Prime Ministers

Then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and then-Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard arrive at the 45th National Labor Conference on July 30, 2009 in Sydney, Australia. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

by Richard Woolcott

The challenge to Kevin Rudd's prime ministership and his replacement by his deputy, Julia Gillard, recently was a ruthless, but highly efficient, political operation.  It is important now to consider the implications for Australian foreign, security and trade policy, especially for Australia's role in Asia and the Pacific.

Rudd was a leader of energy and dedication to improving Australia's international standing.  I was his special envoy tasked to develop his concept of an Asia Pacific community.  This enabled me to observe his contribution at close quarters over some nine meetings since June 2008, including at the East Asian summit meeting in Thailand last October and Asia Pacific community conference in Sydney last December. 

He demonstrated exceptional skills.  While he was demanding, I never witnessed the anger, disdain and bad language about which a number of journalists and politicians wrote or spoke.  He seemed to have boundless energy and drove himself very hard. He was imaginative and often visionary in analyzing situations and shaping policy approaches to them.

Rudd has some substantial domestic and foreign achievements to his credit.  His major foreign policy success was having the G-20 established as the major institution to deal with the global financial crisis last year.  Australia is now at the top table when global economic and financial issues are considered.  There are still concerns, especially in Europe that the global recovery is fragile.

Another achievement is the gradual recognition that more effective arrangements, now acknowledged by ASEAN, need to be developed to deal with present and future political and security issues in the Asia Pacific region.  This is an advance of major importance.  Rudd also developed strong and productive personal links with US President Barack Obama and Asian leaders, especially President Lee Lee Myung-bak of South Korea and Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung.

While the Gillard Government will not have his services, at least until after the next general election should the Government be returned. And, while its focus over the next few months will be on the election, it still faces a formidable foreign, security and trade policy agenda.  The absence of Rudd does mean, however, that Foreign and Trade Minister Stephen Smith and relevant government departments, in particular the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, will now play a greater role in advising on and shaping the Gillard Government's policies in this field. 

A positive development has been Smith adding the trade portfolio to his foreign affairs responsibilities. 

The move towards a more multipolar World Trade Organization will not necessarily mean a more productive WTO. The DOHA Round, trade liberalization and the reduction of agriculture subsidies, are far too important to be allowed to drift or fail. Hopefully, Australia can play a useful role in securing a good outcome, as we did during the later stages of the Uruguay Round in the early 1990's.

The main issues in the very substantial agenda the Gillard Government faces are: responding to the challenges and possible conflicts of interest that will arise from the shift in power and influence from the Atlantic to the Asia Pacific region, driven largely by the rise of China and the rapid growth of India; our campaign to secure election to the UN security council; our bilateral relations with the major countries involved in our region, especially the United States, China, Japan, Russia, India and Indonesia and with important groups such as ASEAN and the EU; Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, Fiji, East Timor, Israel/Palestine; the South Pacific Forum countries; action to combat terrorism; disarmament issues; people smuggling; and climate change amongst others.

In its approach to this extensive agenda I believe that the Gillard Government needs to keep the following principles in mind.

A change of prime minister always creates an opportunity for policies to be reviewed, especially those which are not securing the outcomes we are seeking.  I have always believed continuous review is the basis of effective foreign, security, and trade policy. Such reviews should be based on carefully evaluated information, including intelligence, and a willingness to change course if our objectives are unlikely to be achieved.

Given the legacies of the early treatment of our indigenous population, the old and discredited White Australia policy and events like the 2001 Tampa election (when the plight of foreign asylum seekers became a heated campaign issue), it is essential that Australian governments are seen to oppose firmly any reappearance of ugly undercurrents of latent racism or religious intolerance. 

Governments also need to be careful about believing their own ‘spin' to justify policies which are not working, such as the former Howard Government did on our policy towards Iraq.  Self-delusion is always a threat to effective diplomacy.

In diplomacy, rhetoric, sometimes driven by domestic politics and the enunciation of national aspirations, is easy.  Achieving the desired objectives is much harder.  It has been argued that Rudd promised more than he could deliver.  But some of his objectives involved long-term processes.

The Gillard Government has the opportunity to build on his contacts with leaders and to see those objectives through, especially the G-20 and more effective arrangements for cooperation on political and security issues in the Asia Pacific region.

Richard Woolcott is the Founding Director of the Asia Society AustralAsia Centre and is a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This article was written for the website.