It's all very well to campaign in poetry yet govern in prose, but Kevin Rudd is in danger of descending to direction-via-drivel.
The spectacular U-turn on climate change has been comprehensively dissected for its political, policy and personal implications for Rudd, and international media are starting to join in. Note The Economist's adoption of 'political cowardice', the term Rudd himself used in his Lowy speech last November for those who would avoid action on carbon reduction.
Rather than add to the hot air emissions on the policy backflip, this column will instead offer some thoughts on the damage done to Rudd's foreign policy narrative.
All leaders must tell stories of explanation and exhortation to the voters. The best narratives explain the voters to themselves and even rearrange what the voters want for their country. A big element of the Rudd story has been as the Mandarin-speaking ex-diplomat who could confidently stride the international stage. What was supposed to be the Rudd strong suit hasn't delivered much that can be heavily exploited in this election year. The prosaic prose of governing has not been elevated or illuminated by foreign policy sparkle.
Certainly, Rudd can point to successes. The most important wins on the international stage have been the mighty swerve the Rudd team executed to avoid the global recession and the associated anointing of the G20. Yet neither issue may deliver much in the confines of the voting booth.
Australia was one of those pushing hardest for the G20 to replace the G7. The consummation of that wish is an achievement of lasting significance for Australia. Unfortunately for Rudd, the voter response is more 'Gee-What?' instead of 'Gee-Whizz!' The biggest achievement of all – avoiding the international recession – may get a 'ho hum’ instead of a 'hooray!' Governments seldom get kudos for what didn't happen. It's hard enough to explain what the government achieved, much less what Canberra managed to avoid.
Economic misery has descended on Europe and the US. But after two decades of continuous growth, Australians tend to see strong economic numbers as one of the minimum competencies to be expected from their leaders. Ultimately, consistent economic wins didn't save the Howard Government.
Howard and Costello were frustrated they didn't get much thanks from the electorate for the way Australia avoided the Asian financial crisis and the US dot-com bust. Rudd wants to be haled for the skill with which his government avoided the global wreck. Instead, the electorate may give more attention to paying the bill for the mighty economic swerve. And that bill will be presented in next week's budget.
Global success can sometimes translate into domestic defeat. Most famously, Churchill won World War II and was immediately dispatched by the grateful British voters. George Bush the Elder was at the helm for a swift military victory in Kuwait and the successful completion of the Cold War. He, too, got the thumbs down instead of triumphant reelection. Rudd is tramping around Australian hospitals and talking about tax reform because winning the battle against global recession might not be enough for a victory lap at the polls.
The first international moment of the Rudd prime ministership was flying off to Bali to sign the Kyoto treaty and enlisting Australia in an international climate change crusade. That was the sign-off to his international narrative in the 2007 election. Come the 2010 election, the motifs of memory will be a snowbound summit in Copenhagen and Rudd making his own climate policy an orphan.
Rudd's various international problems – Copenhagen, China, the US alliance as it operates in Afghanistan, the Asia Pacific community idea — will sway few votes as individual issues. Where they matter to voters is as part of the overall foreign policy story. What will worry the Labor brains trust is the damage Rudd has inflicted on his international narrative. That story was of foreign policy competence and Rudd's ambitions for Australia as a player that mattered in the multilateral system.
The Prime Minister has just walked away from one of the great multilateral issues of our time. The Rudd narrative was that he could serve up multi-coloured ice-cream, whereas John Howard could manage only bland, bilateral vanilla. The great U-turn has just melted that multilateral story.
Photo by Flickr user Digital Explorer, used under a Creative Commons license.