Sep 19, 2009

Win-win Australian politics

...proving the lesson that a smart leader like Rudd does need to have & implement his strategies. Winning bipartisan support, whilst at the same time undermining the opponent & strengthening own party. / EJ

Rudd's strategy to spear and seduce

Paul Kelly, Editor-at-large | September 19, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

THERE is a touch of genius in Kevin Rudd's latest move; at one stroke he champions the unifying ethos of the Labor Party, suffocates the political lifeblood of the Liberal Party and strengthens Australia's diplomacy.

The appointments of Kim Beazley and Brendan Nelson strengthen Australia's profile in important capitals. They also reveal Rudd's complexity as a leader and the historic threat he poses to the Liberal Party of Australia. From the moment Rudd and Brendan Nelson had their friendly cup of tea some time ago, Rudd has been contemplating such an appointment.

The former Liberal leader, as Australian ambassador to the European Union and representative to NATO, will discharge his responsibility to the Labor government with flair and dedication. But this appointment betrays the weakness of the Liberal Party. Does anybody imagine that Kim Beazley, Simon Crean or Mark Latham as former ALP leaders would have accepted equivalent ambassadorial posts in the Howard government? It would have been inconceivable and John Howard would not have made them any such offer.

Yet Nelson heads to Brussels as Rudd's envoy ready to follow Rudd's instructions on trade liberalisation, climate change and Afghanistan strategy. The symbolism is lethal: the man the Liberal Party selected as its leader after the 2007 poll to confront Rudd in mortal combat has become part of Labor's governing apparatus. Nelson never became PM but he will become Rudd's man in Europe.

For Labor, it is an exquisite twist of the political knife. It demonstrates Rudd's expanding control of Australia's middle ground. The implicit message is that it is safe for Liberals to vote for Rudd. The Liberal brand is further weakened.

Howard was too tribal a leader to make such "reverse" political appointments. But Rudd is teaching the old tribal warriors a lesson: it is as easy to seduce your opponents as to slay them. This move is good news for the Rudd government and for Nelson. Because he is serving his country, there can be no objection to his decision. But there is no upside for the Liberal Party, its honour, integrity or principles.

Consider Nelson's farewell speech; he praised Howard, Peter Costello and Peter Reith, asked young people to maintain their idealism, expressed his admiration for George W. Bush and opposed the Rudd government's emissions trading legislation in yet another strike at Malcolm Turnbull knowing the whole time he was about to become Rudd's ambassador.

Consider Rudd's parliamentary reply to Nelson: he praised Nelson as a "decent human being", called him Brendan throughout, recalled their conversations about shared "adult grief" over the death of Nelson's father and Rudd's mother, congratulated Nelson for delivering the Liberal Party behind Rudd's 2008 apology to Aboriginal Australians, applauded Nelson as education minister and declared that "the Australian Labor Party salutes you". Nelson is the sort of Liberal leader that Labor usually only dreams about.

Nelson informed Turnbull of the appointment the morning it was announced. It was a neat Rudd-Nelson compact against Turnbull. The message is that Rudd has a refined grasp of bipartisanship as a technique to advance Labor's cause. This was an appointment on Rudd's terms. The public likes bipartisanship and this theme in his diplomatic appointments reveals Rudd's superior political touch to that of Howard.

It comes just a week after Rudd's partisan assault on the Liberal Party at the launch of my book, The March of Patriots, dismissing the party's claims on any role in Australia's economic modernisation. Such partisanship provoked a furious reply from Turnbull and Howard.

It reminds that Rudd spears and seduces the Liberals. There is a "man for all seasons" quality about Rudd as he moves effortlessly from a divisive dismissal of the Howard government's legitimacy to recruit contemporary Liberals into Labor's umbrella of patronage.

Have no doubt the Liberal Party is at a moment of historic weakness and the Labor Party is at a moment of historic strength. The Beazley and Nelson appointments testify to this. Rudd, with help from Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, got it exactly right. It was Smith, responding to Rudd, who proposed the Brussels appointment for Nelson. It is near perfect, without the sensitivity of Washington yet of a status that suits a former party leader.

Beazley is made for his role as ambassador to the US and the appointment won immediate bipartisan support. There is no figure in the national parliament with Beazley's experience in dealing with the US as academic, politician, defence minister, opposition leader and participant in the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue. But this decision was a moment of truth for Rudd.

If he had failed to appoint Beazley, waves of alarm and complaint would have been transmitted throughout the Labor Party. The decision was not automatic. Relations between Rudd and Beazley have been extremely tense since Rudd deposed Beazley as ALP leader in December 2006. Beazley's service to the party has been long and honourable with nothing more important than Beazley's arduous task as opposition leader after the 1996 defeat and his journey through this valley of tears keeping the Labor Party together and competitive.

The Washington post was the job Beazley wanted. His qualifications were so superior to any other candidate from the diplomatic service or politics that Rudd's overlooking of Beazley would have been a slight against the man and against his Labor history. Given Labor tribalism, it would have been a mistake sure to trigger a damaging internal debate about Rudd's values.

Rudd and Smith examined a shortlist of candidates and reached the natural decision. As a result Rudd has repaired bad blood, honoured a great Labor figure and appointed the best candidate. It mirrors Howard's appointment of former Liberal leader, Andrew Peacock as Australia's ambassador to the US.

Beazley has the standing to become a substantial figure in Washington's community in the broadest sense - dealing with the White House, the cabinet, Pentagon and State, the congress, think tanks and the media. He has the humility to work for Rudd, not an easy task for a former leader with his own deep views about the US alliance. Sensing this concern, Beazley was smart enough to stress he would no longer have his own views but devote himself to representing the Rudd government.

Rudd and Smith are destroying some myths about political appointments. The lesson from history is that the Australian people accept such appointments provided the politician is qualified. It is the rort of "jobs for the boys" without justification the public hates. Obviously, neither Beazley nor Nelson offend this rule.

Rudd has worked furiously with President Barack Obama to provide policy input into a range of issues spearheaded by Australia's proposals on the global financial crisis submitted via the Group of 20.

The two leaders have a sound working relationship.

There is a view in Canberra that nobody really advises Rudd on foreign policy. The reality in Washington, however, is that a new Obama administration is taking shape at a time of unusual American tribulation and global uncertainty with a desperate scramble among nations for influence in the US capital. For Australia, Beazley will be an astute ambassador whose great quality will be that all Americans will like him and some will love him.


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