Kevin Rudd's bid to nominate as a candidate for the next UN secretary general (SG) has been vetoed by the Turnbull Government. This is more than a little embarrassing for everyone concerned.
In a few hours, many UN observers will wake to the news of Rudd's thwarted campaign and shake their heads in disbelief that a country would so savagely cut down a former statesman in such a public manner. All the other 12 candidates for SG were nominated by their respective governments. These nominations did not have to be publicly asked for, and there was no unedifying bashing of the prospective nominee. It is usually a rather straightforward, non-partisan process. In New Zealand, for example, the conservative Prime Minister John Key has backed former Labour PM Helen Clark. The NZ government has also bankrolled her Twitter campaign #Helen4SG.
But in Australia we do things differently.
The decision to not nominate Rudd will feed into already negative international perceptions of Australian politics: ie: ‘they’re a brutish lot down under, aren’t they?'
Clearly, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was in an awkward position. Cabinet was divided over whether to back Rudd (as indeed was the public, with the Lowy Institute Poll 2016 showing 49% thought Rudd would not be a good SG versus 46% who thought he would). In the end, Turnbull went against his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and chose the path of least resistance.
Turnbull’s rationale was simple. He said Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister and foreign minister of a G20 country, is not 'well-suited' to the position.
This is despite the fact that Rudd has been active in and around the UN over the past few years. He fashioned for himself quite a nice little campaign vehicle in the form of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM), which is based out of the International Peace Institute, a think tank which he also co-chairs. Rudd is also President of the Asia Society's think tank. Indeed, Kevin Rudd has put more effort into his campaign for Secretary-General then virtually all of the official candidates.
One can only assume that Turnbull took objection to Rudd’s style of leadership and management, and made a judgement on the question of Rudd's suitability. But surely that judgement would have best left to the membership of the Security Council? The P5 and their ten elected friends are well placed to make a judgment on the suitability of each candidate. All 15 Council members have spent many months pondering that question. Last week, they made clear their collective preference for former UNHCR chief António Guterres, an extremely surprising result (12 encourage, 0 discourage, 3 abstentions).
Australia has never fielded a candidate for UN Secretary-General, and now we are going to have wait a little longer. Kristina Kenneally offered an interesting comment earlier this week about the depth of Australian talent, saying: 'I can think of 12 Australians off the top of my head who would be a better secretary-general, and one of them is my Labrador'. I cannot speak to the qualifications of Kenneally's dog, but twelve seems a little high. The problem is that there are so few Australians leading UN agencies and departments. Peter Drennan, a former Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner, is Under Secretary-General for Safety and Security. He is the only Australian at the head of affairs in New York. No Australian has never led a UN peacekeeping mission or special political mission. Alexander Downer was UN special adviser to the secretary-general on Cyprus (July 2008 – February 2014), but he was never a mission leader.
Australians simply cannot compete for high level posts at the UN because they lack UN experience. There was even a question mark above Rudd's name in regards to UN experience, given he has never managed a UN agency, fund, or secretariat department. In comparison, eight of the 12 confirmed candidates – Christiana Figueres, Susana Malcorra, Helen Clark, Irina Bokova, Danilo Türk, and António Guterres, Vuk Jeremić, and Srgjan Kerim – have a depth of UN experience.
If we are to see an Australian secretary-general in the future, the government will need to develop a talent pipeline that encourages Australians to progress through international organisations. To that end, the government must become more forceful in nominating Australians for posts at the top of the UN.
For now, the second straw poll in the SG race will be held next week. Sadly, Kevin Rudd’s name will not be on the list of candidates, and Australia will be smaller for it.