Rudd Resurrected, or Kevin II
July 3, 2013
A new level of political intrigue shook Australia last week as Kevin Rudd resumed the role of prime minister, ousting Julia Gillard, who three years earlier had done the same to him.
Rudd’s resurrection and the roiling factionalism of the Labor Party have seen Shakespearean conniving and shifts in alliances; betrayal, misogynous barbs, and political murder and suicide have characterized the battles. The drama goes beyond Labor and includes the persona of Tony Abbott, the leader of the Liberal Party (ironically, the more conservative of Australia’s two major parties) and head of the opposition coalition.
The phenomenon, viscerally deemed “spill” politics by local journalists, is considered by most Australians to be gut-wrenchingly “non-Australian.” A long-standing political observer in Sydney said, in near shock, “This is not who we are as a nation.” If that is true and voters say “a pox on both houses,” where will they turn when the impending election forces them to choose a side?
Parliamentary rules require Rudd to call an election between now and late November. He must hold the election within six weeks of advising the governor-general of his plans to do so. Business leaders, who met Rudd in Canberra on July 2, urged him to call an election as soon as possible. Members of the decimated Labor Party did the same. That might be good advice.
Before the latest Labor coup, sitting prime minister Gillard was trailing the opposition’s Abbott by huge margins. Since Rudd’s return, polls have spiked in Labor’s favor.
But Rudd will probably see reasons to delay. As an addicted internationalist, he is likely to believe that bringing his wisdom to the G20 Summit in Russia, the APEC Leaders Summit in Bali, and the East Asia Summit in Brunei—all in October—may help convince his fellow citizens that he is the man to lead the country.
Early signs of this hubris are already on display. Using shocking language, he suggested to Indonesia that Abbott’s policies are so inimical to its interests that his leadership could result in open conflict with Australia’s nearest neighbor. This was a stunning choice of words ahead of Rudd’s July 4–5 visit to Jakarta. The only rational interpretation is that Rudd hopes Indonesia, fearing the Abbott that he is trying to define as a dangerous jingoist, will send a message to Australia that it prefers Rudd steering the ship of state.
So the question on everyone’s mind in Australia is whether Rudd learned from his ouster the first time around. The betting is that he probably has, at an intellectual level. But striding the world’s stage with other leaders through October may prove too irresistible and entice him to eschew good advice to take advantage of his strong poll numbers by calling an election early. The consensus is that Rudd “will go long.”
That decision may have some real impact on U.S. interests and engagement in the Asia Pacific. On the one hand, President Barack Obama will have his old friend and fellow big-policy mind with him at the key summits in October. Rudd’s creativity and nearly unmatched ability to articulate the advantages of open regionalism, new economic and security architecture, and a compelling case for the Indo-Pacific—a concept linking the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean as one strategic region—will be a real advantage.
On the other hand, Rudd’s resurrection resulted in the resignation of Trade Minister Craig Emerson, which could cause problems for progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) along the timeline that Obama and his new U.S. trade representative, Mike Froman, are targeting. They would like to see an agreement by year’s end in order to try and pass it well before the 2014 U.S. congressional elections.
Emerson has a firm grasp of trade policy, economics, and the politics that surround them. His involvement in the TPP negotiations was clearly part of a plan to complete an agreement in the near term. But he is gone. In addition, the Australian government will be precluded from making commitments to the agreement in the period between Rudd’s announcing of elections and the vote itself. This could sideline Australia during what could be a key juncture in the negotiations, especially if Rudd decides to delay elections until November.
Australia’s foreign policy has been bipartisan in nature, meaning that the outcome of this year’s election is unlikely to have any dramatic effect on the country’s behavior internationally. The Australia-New Zealand-United States alliance, or ANZUS, will continue to be the foundation of Australia’s strategic policy, and both political parties agree that increased engagement with the Indo-Pacific is essential to the nation’s continuing prosperity.
One potential divergence in the foreign policy of the Liberal and Labor parties is their relative emphases on relations with traditional partners like the United States and United Kingdom, and those with less distant powers in Asia. The most recent Liberal government (1996–2007) stressed the former, providing the United States with steadfast support and praise. On the other hand, former Labor prime ministers Paul Keating (1991–1996) and Rudd during his first term (2007–2010) focused on strengthening strategic, economic, and diplomatic ties with East Asia. In the end, the two parties consider relations with both traditional allies and Asian partners to be essential, so the difference between a Rudd and an Abbott government would be in emphasis more than substance.
When asked what Americans should understand about Australia in order to become better partners, one expert responded, “The United States respects authority, not government; Australia respects government, not authority.” At the moment, Australians want to regain that respect for their government. They are not comfortable with the Shakespearean drama playing out in front of them and hope the upcoming elections will offer a catharsis.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Ernest Bower is codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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