CANBERRA – For students of incomprehensible behavior by otherwise apparently intelligent leaders, Australian politics is the gift that keeps on giving. The latest example is the decision by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government, just re-elected by a razor-thin margin, to deny former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd the formal nomination he needed to join the race to be the next UN Secretary-General.
The decision defies not only the merits of the case and well-established precedent, but also the government’s own need for a more bipartisan spirit to develop if it is to get any of its major legislation through the Australian Parliament. It will be embarrassing internationally as well – seen as petty, partisan, and vindictive by most governments around the world, regardless of whether they would be inclined to support Rudd.
And it will be particularly embarrassing for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who argued that whatever distaste her conservative coalition colleagues had for the former Labor leader, it was wrong to stop a prominent Australian from seeking a position for which he was regarded internationally as manifestly qualified. Her government didn’t have to campaign actively for him – just not stand in his way.
Rudd’s qualifications for the job should not be in doubt. He is a diplomat by training, a brilliant linguist with a first-class policy mind, who in government won plaudits internationally for his leading role in the G20 response to the global financial crisis of 2008, his efforts on climate change, and his historic apology to Australia’s indigenous peoples. In his political afterlife, he chairs a major international commission on multilateralism, runs the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, and has been a thoughtful advocate – respected highly both in Washington and Beijing – for strategies to manage better the US-China relationship.