This morning in The Australian, Peter van Onselen wrote a column about Kevin Rudd not attending the Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington DC this week:
PM's missed trip a win for parochialism
KEVIN Rudd has sometimes been (unfairly) criticised for choosing to attend international dialogues instead of staying at home to work through domestic policy difficulties. It is one of the reasons Julia Gillard has clocked up more time as acting PM than any previous deputy.
But this week, the Prime Minister made the opposite mistake by failing to attend a crucial nuclear security summit in Washington organised by US President Barack Obama.
van Onselen’s argument was that Rudd should have been at the meeting, and by staying home he missed an opportunity to put Australia's interests first.
Now I was pretty dismissive of his article, suggesting that no one would think Rudd should have gone to Washington the week before the biggest Council of Australian Government meeting in living memory. I felt van Onselen was pretty blasé about what Rudd was doing, and he was also massively underplaying the media’s reaction should Rudd have gone.
Andrew Carr, a blogger and PhD student in foreign affairs, took the opposite view and believed Rudd should have been there because it was the biggest gathering of world leaders in decades. Respecting Andrew’s opinions as I do, I thought it best to have a closer look at the summit, because to be honest I hadn’t really taken in the size of the event.
Wikipedia already has a page devoted to it which lists the attendees. And I have to say it is pretty impressive. There are 40 heads of state by my reckoning, and according to the NY Times, it is the largest gathering of world leaders at an event hosted by a US President since 1945! Forty seven nations were invited, and only Australia (Defence Minister), Egypt (Foreign Affairs Minister), Indonesia (Vice-President), Israel (Deputy PM), Poland (Foreign Affairs Minister), Thailand (Deputy PM), and the UK (Foreign Affairs Minister) are not represented by the Head of State/Government.
Australia is a huge supplier of uranium, and Rudd has also been active in the nuclear disarmament stakes, so he certainly should have been there, and given Rudd’s love of all things foreign affairs, you know he would have loved to have been there. And yet he wasn’t.
The reason of course is that while he should have been there, had he gone the media and opposition would have a merry old time saying that he had left the country in the crucial week before the COAG meeting, and that he was more interested in international affairs than the health and hospitals of the country. Anyone who doesn't think this would happen hasn’t read a newspaper or listened to AM radio since 24 November 2007. Barrie Cassidy in his article in The Drum today writes of WA Premier Colin Barnett:
He [Brumby] sees the objection of the West Australian Premier, Colin Barnett, to the GST changes as fundamental and non-negotiable. The fact that Barnett is overseas until the eve of the talks partly supports that view.
So you can plainly see the line taken if Rudd was OS – “no room for negotiations”, “no chance of a deal”, “He’s leaving Nicola Roxon to do the dirty work”, “Rudd’s already running away from the health package” etc etc.
The fact is the health and hospital deal is on a knife edge. John Brumby is acting like the worst whinger this side of Eddie McGuire, and has massively over-played his hand in the hope that his standing up to Canberra will help him in the Victorian elections later this year. That would be a good game plan if a) Kevin Rudd wasn’t more popular than he, and b) a majority of Victorians weren’t in favour of the scheme.
But because of Brumby (mainly), Rudd has had to take the politically expedient route and stay at home. Brumby today addressed the National Press Club – image how that would have looked were Rudd overseas – it would be as though he had vacated the field. The news reports would have been all about how his press conferences in Washington were all about domestic events. As it was Brumby’s performance at the press club was great, until he was asked questions and he looked rather flummoxed.
President Obama was in exactly the same position as Rudd when he cancelled his trip to Indonesia and Australia earlier this year because his Health Care Bill was going through the final stages in the House of Representatives. Admittedly Obama’s visit here was not as big an occasion as the Nuclear Security Summit, but in domestic political terms his Health Care Bill was as important as is Rudd’s health care scheme.
I don’t know how the COAG meeting next week will play out (apart from the fact that I’m pretty sure it will last longer than one day), but I do know the stakes are massive for Rudd – anything less than looking like he is fully committed to his reforms and they would be dead.
This is the problem with politics – so much of it comes down to pathetic symbolism. Obama didn’t need to stay in the US – he could have worked the phones just as well from Airforce One, but he had to be seen to be on deck. Such things happen all the time – Kevin Rudd flies over the cargo ship run aground on the Barrier Reef. Why? He didn’t need to, he has no knowledge of salvage operations, but he had to be seen to be there. He wasn't the only one who did it – Anna Bligh and Bob Brown also went for a look see (I’m not sure if Greg Hunt did, but given he was demanding Rudd be there I wouldn’t be surprised if he did).
People and the media to a great extent have not shifted from mid-20th Century views of how things are done – leaders are expected to be physically at events and to conduct things face to face – being available on the phone is not enough – you’re suddenly classed as “absent”. Rudd could have just as easily watched video footage of the coal ship crash from his office in Canberra – but no, that wouldn’t satisfy the media. And make no mistake the only reason he was there was because of the media. You could say this is evidence that he is all spin, but no, it is evidence in my opinion that Rudd is a realist who knows if he hadn’t gone there himself, Abbott or Hunt would have been criticising him for not doing so, and the media would have reported that criticism without comment.
Take Peter Garrett – earlier this year he was criticised for not being present at a meeting that was of such a low level that it would have been absolutely incongruous for him to have been there – in fact he would have not added any value to the meeting at all. Did the media report that? No, it was suddenly the most important meeting ever held.
So back to Rudd and his absence from Washington. Yes he should have been there, and it would be nice to argue that he should have not cared about what the media or opposition would have said. On any other week I would agree with you – heck even if it were the week before the budget I’d agree with you. But with Brumby and other Premiers looking for any reason to block or amend or delay the health and hospital deal, all it would take is some media speculation that Rudd’s absence suggested he didn’t believe a deal would be made at COAG for that to become a self fulfilling prophecy.
And that would be a disaster for Rudd that would be painted as one of his own making – not a good look in an election year.
Rudd has been overseas a fair bit in his first two years, and I defy anyone to find a trip that was frivolous, and yet he has been criticised pretty ferociously by the media – if you have heard the phrase Kevin 747 you know what I’m talking about. I bet his missing this event absolutely killed him inside; and that in itself I think also displays just how important to him is getting this health scheme through. What leaders do is often symbolic, and yes missing this trip in the long term, big-world picture view of things was “wrong”, but what it symbolises is not parochialism, but rather that Health is the highest priority for Rudd – higher even than a once in a lifetime dream-for-a-foreign-affairs-nerd International Conference. And if that doesn’t indicate just how tough he will be negotiating at COAG, then nothing does.