By now we’re pretty familiar with Kevin Rudd’s modus operandi. He wants to leave all the negative stuff to John Howard, and present himself in statesmanlike mode: conservative, responsible, even bipartisan.

Hence his refusal to respond in kind to the government’s attacks, his failure to criticise last week’s budget, and his eagerness to forge some sort of compromise position on industrial relations. And hence another piece of bipartisanship revealed this morning: Rudd’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama, who is visiting Australia next month.

Greens leader Bob Brown tried to organise a parliamentary reception for the Tibetan leader and Nobel laureate, but was told by Senate president Paul Calvert that he had “to be mindful of international sensitivities”.

The Howard government’s kow-towing to foreign dictators in general, and the Chinese leadership in particular, is hardly news. But Rudd, who was then Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman, criticised the government for that very reason at the time of the Dalai Lama’s last visit in 2002, and on that occasion met with him himself.

Now, however, with the scent of power in his nostrils, Rudd is giving a higher priority to good relations with the rulers in Beijing. According to organisers, he “politely declined” the opportunity to meet him again.

With a few honorable exceptions such as Brown and Labor’s Michael Danby, Tibet is a no-go area for Australian politicians – even as Chinese repression there intensifies in the leadup to the 2008 Olympics.

That in turn is symptomatic of a wider failure. China has become so vital to Australia’s economic fortunes that no-one wants to contemplate its more problematic side.

But the reality is that democratisation and decolonisation in China – whether gradual or sudden, peaceful or violent – is going to be the biggest issue in our part of the world over the next decade or two. The government has its head in the sand. Now Rudd, who should know better, is right beside them.