No one could seriously consider Kevin Rudd’s 17 day trip to America, Europe and China as a junket, and no one has criticised it as one; there has been no nicking off on a tour of archaeological ruins in the style of Gough Whitlam, still fewer lazy days spent at the cricket in the footsteps of the sainted Sir Robert Menzies.
It has been full-on face to face diplomacy, and if the talks with George Bush showed alarming signs of degenerating into the mutual masturbation that so dismayed us during the Howard era, at least old Dubya won’t be around to embarrass us (and the rest of the world) for much longer.
Apart from that, Rudd renewed old contacts and made many new ones in Washington and confirmed the new government’s intention to re-engage with the United Nations, a welcome and long overdue commitment. The rest of the tour, to London, Paris and the NATO meeting in Bucharest before the climax in Beijing, will be equally relevant.
The only real criticism has been not that the trip is too long, but that it is too short: it should also have included a visit to Tokyo. But Rudd decided that two and half weeks was enough time away from home. And that really is the political problem: the timing has been less than ideal, and it is largely Rudd’s own fault.
He has spent the first four months of government warning that we face a crisis — indeed a series of crises: inflation, housing, hospitals, climate change, water, gambling, teenage binge drinking and anything else his energetic staff can dream up. If the situation in Australia is really as dire as he claims, surely he should be sitting in Canberra dealing with it, especially in the crucial weeks before his government’s first budget.
His absence shows a touching trust in his inexperienced team, but it also suggests that his priorities remain, as some have feared, in the big picture of foreign policy rather than the domestic nitty gritty. He tried to reassure us before he went: his trip, he insisted, was of vital importance to working Australian families. However, those having their homes repossessed may struggle to see the connection.
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Once home, our Prime Minister would be wise to plant both feet firmly on the ground and keep them there.
At least Rudd was able to leave on a note of triumph: the COAG meeting with the state premiers was a huge political success, with in principle agreement on the Murray-Darling, hospitals and business regulation – an impressive start to the great election aim of ending the blame game.
A second level Rudd crisis, binge drinking, is apparently to be attacked through a scare campaign; agencies are to be instructed to prepare a series of horrific advertisements designed to frighten the livers out of impressionable teenagers and thus wean them off the hard stuff and on to a blameless diet of lemonade and Horlicks.
Rudd harks back approvingly to the Grim Reaper AIDS campaign and the anti-smoking ads showing nauseating pictures of diseased lungs. These, he notes, were truly memorable. And so they were, but there is no evidence they were effective. The control of AIDS was largely due to educating the tightly-knit gay community and needle exchanges: the decline in smoking came about after the habit became hugely expensive and inconvenient. The scare was incidental.
Drinking is unlikely to be different. Many years ago the French government, alarmed by a huge incidence of genuine alcoholism in the community, ran a national campaign that blitzed the country with posters warning: “Alcohol is a slow killer.” The French drinkers, with their customary sang froid (or perhaps savoir faire), replied, “So who’s in hurry?” and retired to the nearest bar.
Will Australians be far behind?