Australian governments tend to have stuttering and uneven first terms. Paradoxically, that may be one reason why, for the last 80 years, Australian voters have always returned new governments for a second term.
Governments are given time to learn from their mistakes. The Opposition has to spend a couple of terms experiencing the spirit-deadening dreadfulness of being without power.
When finally the voters spin the wheel, famished Opposition MPs get to gorge on office. They learn-while-doing, make a lot of old mistakes anew, and discover that Weber's truth applies to government as well as opposition – politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards.
The first term balls-up blues afflicted John Howard – he lost ministers at a rapid rate and took a long time to find his form. By contrast, Bob Hawke had a dream run first term – he even broke the drought — but confirmed the hoodoo by calling an early election, sleep-walking through an interminable campaign and just clinging on despite being hammered by the voters.
Kevin Rudd has delivered an uneven performance and is running scared. No sleep walk for this Labor leader. Frantic activity, 24/7. History says Rudd should get a second go, but The Kevin is always a worrier.
The previous column looked at the holes Rudd has blown in his own foreign policy narrative. Another way to assess the world view Rudd is offering is to compare it to the international narratives built by his predecessors.
Both the Howard and Hawke-Keating governments left considerable foreign policy monuments. Granted, those narratives were constructed over several terms, but let's ignore that quibble as we do the comparison test on Rudd.
The first comparison is with the foreign policy story John Howard presented throughout 11 years. Paul Kelly’s March of Patriots (p. 430) gives this masterful summary of the Howard narrative, calling it an amalgam of ideology, judgement and prejudice.
Howard knew what he believed—that the American alliance was our special national asset; that Japan was our best friend in Asia and China was our greatest opportunity; that Australia's success originated in its British heritage; that our national values were beyond compromise and that national identity was beyond political engineering; that Indonesia was a flawed giant that should not monopolise our attention; that Europe cared little for Australia and had entered its afternoon twilight; that Israel must be defended for its values and its history; that nationalism, not regionalism, was the main driver of global affairs; that economic globalisation was a golden opportunity for Australia's progress; that Australia's prestige in the world would be determined by the quality of its economy and society and not by moral edicts to satisfy the human rights industry; and, finally, that Australia's tradition of overseas military deployment reflected a timeless appreciation of its national interest.
Rudd has embraced the US alliance, although no one could grip it with the intensity of Howard hugging George W Bush. The British heritage stuff has seldom blipped on Rudd's radar, whereas he has much more sympathy and some policy agreements with the great European experiment. The questions Rudd has about globalisation were best expressed in his essay bludgeoning neo-liberalism.
On military deployments, Rudd found the exit door in Iraq and seeks to do the alliance minimum in Afghanistan – this is alliance expediency, not alliance expeditionary.
More telling than the comparisons with Howard is to see where Rudd diverges from the Hawke-Keating narrative. Rudd is at one with his Labor predecessors in the overarching Asia theme, what Hawke called 'enmeshment with Asia'. The passage of time and different personal preferences point to changes in the way this is expressed by this Labor government.
Rudd started out closer to the Howard position on Indonesia than that adopted by Hawke and Keating. In the traditional north-south divide of the Asianists in the Foreign Affairs Department, Rudd is emphatically a Northener, not an ASEANist. The pace of change in Indonesia keeps altering the dynamic, but Rudd’s default gaze will always lift beyond ASEAN to Northeast Asia.
Hawke, Keating and Howard would have agreed on Japan as most important and China as the great opportunity. Rudd's own history and the power shifts of history have reversed that order. China has not been a political plus for Rudd in his first term, certainly not as part of a story to persuade voters. The tough treatment has been delivered by Beijing. Rudd just has to carry the bruises.
Hawke and Keating saw APEC as the premier regional institution for Australia. Rudd has put on record his view of APEC's failings. Hawke and Keating's efforts to open and liberalise the Australian economy found a regional expression in the founding ethos of APEC. That narrative no longer chimes as it once did, plus it's a bit too close to the hated neo-liberals to be easily adopted by Rudd.
In the Rudd foreign policy universe, the G20 outranks APEC, just as the Prime Minister was happy to go in search of an Asia Pacific community where APEC played a supporting, not dominant, role.
The thread that could have tied all this together for Rudd was his vision of Australia as a committed multilateral player. The effort to win a seat on the UN Security Council is emblematic of Rudd's instincts and Australia's long interest in a rules-based international system. The Rudd foreign policy narrative could have trumpeted efforts to create a fair and productive multilateral system as a compliment to the same domestic themes within Australia.
The U-turn on climate change, however, must render the great multilateralist mute. As usual, Laura Tingle went to the nub in her column (subscription required), describing Rudd's style as swinging violently, going between complete political slut to sanctimonious policy nerd:
Political pragmatists and cynics snort in vague contempt at those who observe that Rudd looks like an utterly empty vessel in the wake of his decision to abandon emissions trading. The voters, they say, do not give a rats. They aren’t even paying attention. The question of what Kevin stands for might catch up with him one day, they concede, but not before the election.
You've got to be standing somewhere for a while before that foreign policy narrative starts to build.
Photo by Flickr user superciliousness, used under a Creative Commons license.