When a prime minister comprehensively rolls a foreign minister, the ripples spread in many directions. What Julia Gillard did to Kevin Rudd — reversing the Government's stance on uranium sales to India — was a swift and precise hammering.

The way the leader delivered the blow — just before the US president landed in Canberra, sucking up all political oxygen for days — was politically exquisite. One swift sword-thrust and then on to other matters. Gillard is asking her party to change its mind, but didn't see any reason to consult Rudd about what was on his mind.

Rudd showed no inclination to dance around what his leader had done to him. That very frankness speaks volumes about the toxins in the 'relationship' between the prime minister and her foreign minister. Take the time to savour the light, shade and swift shift in Leigh Sales' interview with Rudd.

What started off being all about about the increased US military presence in Australia and China's reaction suddenly pivoted (the word of the week), when Rudd said of Gillard's India announcement: 'The truthful answer to your question is no, I was not consulted.' Obama has given strine (Oz-speak) a bit of a burl while in Canberra, so let us characterise the Sales' reaction to the Rudd confession this way: 'Wacko. You little beauty. That is one hell of a rabbit Foreign Minister Rudd just set running. And they're racing at the dish-lickers' derby — watch the doggies go after that rabbit!' It was a good interview and a great get.

Now to the many ripples. Look at some of the negative effects — those who got a whack from the Gillard shift and the way it was done:

  • Kevin Rudd.
  • The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
  • The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  • The Labor Party's policy taboo about Australian uranium sales.

 And what of the winners?

  • India.
  • The US and its Civil Nuclear Agreement with India.
  • Julia Gillard asserts her leadership and growing mastery of foreign policy, plus her ability to bend the Labor Party to her wishes, even on a taboo issue.

Each of these ripples is important in its own right. Stick, though, to what all this says about the prime minister and her foreign minister. The poisonous atmosphere has got to the stage that the two don't consult each other because of fears about what the other would do with sensitive information. Gillard didn't tell Rudd about her change on India because the news could be leaked at a moment that would do her maximum damage.

This was not just about altering the ALP's policy platform. It was a major moment in Australian diplomacy with India and for the way Australia thinks about the NPT. There is much to play for in such a change. In normal times, the prime minister and foreign minister would have spent hours talking it through and seeking the advantages to be gained in such a big shift.

If Australia was ready to give India a diplomatic win, what could it have sought in exchange in a negotiation rather than a unilateral concession? At the very least, Canberra could go looking to tighten some of the many gaps in the US agreement with India. And if Australia was really ambitious, it could have sought to drag India closer to the NPT.

Such complex work, however, requires some measure of leverage and ability to negotiate. Gillard threw all that away. She has told India quite explicitly that it has won. Not much leverage there. As prime minister, Rudd reversed the Howard Government decision to sell uranium to India. As foreign minister, he now has to support the position he overturned. If Gillard actually trusted her foreign minister, she could have given him a reasonably strong hand in seeking a deal with New Delhi. Rudd pointed to some of those elements in his Sales' interview:

I've already gone on the public record in Bangalore in the last 48 hours saying I support the Prime Minister's position. Of course the other part of this is to ensure that the government of India would be prepared to accept the conditionalities attached, and that goes to bilateral nuclear safeguards arrangements with the government of India, on top of India's undertakings already to a group called the Nuclear Suppliers Group. And that involves a separation of civilian from military facilities, a greater inspectorate role for the International Atomic Energy Agency as well as a number of other conditions which India has already signed up to. So it's those arrangements plus the Australian bilateral safeguards arrangements, and I'll also be keen to explore with the Indians over time their position on the future of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, and the Proliferation Security Initiative as well. There's much to discuss with the Indians and let's just remember even though the Right of the Australian Labor Party, which supports this approach represent 55% of the ALP Conference, and the Left which opposes it broadly represent 45% of the Conference. I think you're likely to anticipate a strong debate, although I think the numbers are there to support the Prime Minister.

There is, indeed, much to discuss with India. But a negotiation that starts with Australia announcing that it now accepts India's demand is not going to produce much of a shift in New Delhi's position on anything. This is certainly an important moment in Australia's dealings with India. Unfortunately, one lesson that India may draw is that giving Canberra a few whacks can force changes that carry no costs.

Equally, this is a significant moment in the strange dynamic between Gillard and Rudd. When the foreign minister is so open about being dudded by the prime minister, there is not much left in the relationship and everything to play for.

Photo by Flickr user Sergiu Bacioiu.