Election Interpreter 2013
Daniel Flitton is senior correspondent for The Age covering foreign affairs and politics.
Bags packed, removalists ready, Victoria's ex-premier Steve Bracks is making a final swing through Melbourne's boardrooms in this last week of the election campaign to gauge thinking in the business community. But unlike his former Labor counterpart in Queensland, Peter Beattie, Bracks is not aiming to revive his political career. He's off to New York as Australia's consul general.
At least, that's the plan – unless Julie Bishop gets a chance to decide otherwise.
Bishop warned when Bracks was designated for the New York job back in May that the appointment might be 'reviewed' should the Coalition win government and she become foreign minister. Handing the job to Bracks was an act of 'bad faith', Bishop claimed, because an election was imminent but the Opposition was not consulted.
Labor was quick to remind people it was hardly the only party to send politicians abroad, even close to an election. Former Liberal speaker in the House of Representative Bob Halverson, for example, was made Ambassador to Ireland by the Howard Government on the eve of the 1998 poll.
My guess, assuming a Coalition victory, is Bishop will let Bracks go to New York, not wanting to set the precedent of stripping political opponents of such positions. (This is probably the same reason Kevin Rudd surprised many in 2007 by not recalling ex-Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone from Italy.) Bishop was careful to complain about the process, not Bracks' competence.
Besides, Bishop may well find herself defending one or more appointments of ex-colleagues to diplomatic posts. She has already touted Peter Costello as the perfect person to lead the International Monetary Fund, or she may look to the former Treasurer for some other role.
Politicians can make good diplomats by connecting to the local political class in a way a career bureaucrat can never hope to. Kim Beazley is in Washington at present with exactly that aim, Tony Abbott paying him a barbed compliment last month as one of 'the most impressive people in public life never to have become Prime Minister.' Beazley has been in the job more than three years now and will soon need to be replaced. The Coalition dispatched former Liberal leader and foreign minister Andrew Peacock to the post in the 1990s. Maybe Alexander Downer is tired of Cyprus, although his hawking for Huawei has not gone unnoticed and could complicate any return to officialdom.
The other advantage taken with diplomatic postings is to convince a reluctant colleague that it is time to move on. The Coalition will need to refresh its pool of parliamentary talent in the coming years. Amanda Vanstone has already cheekily speculated Bronwyn Bishop could be made Speaker, and from there, who knows? Kevin Andrews, Michael Ronaldson and David Johnston have each been speculated on as front bench 'deadwood'.
Curiously enough, the political class are favoured for what Abbott might term the 'Anglosphere' postings – Washington and London most often. Cynics might see this as a lifestyle choice for the 'plum' jobs, but a more generous interpretation is that an ex-politician might feel most valuable connecting with familiar parliamentary systems. Perhaps the 'Asian century' rhetoric will change habits and challenge the longstanding orientalist bias that a Beijing or Jakarta needs the special cultural skills of a professional diplomat. One thing politicians understand intuitively is power, and as more power is concentrated in Asia, the ambassador jobs could become more sought after.
The politics of posting goes beyond politicians, of course. A few weeks before Julia Gillard lost the top job, there was backroom Coalition chatter about promotions in the Foreign Affairs and Trade department, with several of the jobs going to former staff in Labor ministerial offices. The grumbles even made it into the Sunday Age gossip column (nothing to do with me, but I was aware of the scuttlebutt). The appointment of Gillard's international advisor, Richard Maude, to the role as Office of National Assessments chief in April was similarly seen in a partisan light, at least for some, even though the position was advertised.
But I wouldn't anticipate a purge in the foreign affairs bureaucracy should the Coalition win. Those grumbles were part of a theme the Coalition was pushing about Labor's sinking ship, led by a fake battle over who should appoint the next Governor-General. As sources told me at the time and since, advancing through a diplomatic career these days almost mandates time in a ministerial office. Depending on age, many bureaucrats have served either Labor or Coalition masters, but the wise heads know this should not be mistaken for political affiliation.
Photo by Flickr user autumn_bliss.