Kevin Rudd is receiving plaudits for his deft and decisive handling of Australia’s response to the global financial meltdown. But when it comes to his position on the death penalty for the Bali bombers, Mr. Rudd is so far at least looking decidedly unprincipled.

Mr. Rudd has in the not too distant past said that the death penalty is wrong — always and everywhere. In Robert Macklin’s 2007 biography of Rudd, the Prime Minister says;

I believe the death penalty is repugnant at every level and we have a responsibility not just to speak out against it, when it applies to Australians, but to argue, uncompromisingly, that the time has come for the world to put an end to this medieval practice.

And a year earlier, in an essay in The Monthly, which Rudd used to cleverly position himself as a conviction politician, he wrote that “capital punishment is unacceptable in all circumstances and in all jurisdictions.”

These are not statements which allow for any ambiguity or equivocation. But did the Prime Minister really mean them, or where they said with a calculating eye to political ambition? Is it just another case where a politician backslides from a principled moral position because political considerations demand he do so?

Mr. Rudd appears now to be saying that he is only opposed to the death penalty in Australia, but that if other countries have it on their statute books as a legitimate form of punishment then that’s okay by him. This is how he is justifying his comments earlier this month that the Bali bombers deserve the death penalty.

On October 3 he had this exchange with 4BC’s Greg Cary:

CARY: Okay. Just perhaps in a sentence then because there is not a lot of time and only one or two points to make – what is your fundamental, philosophical problem with the death penalty?

PM: Oh, I take the underlying view that when it comes to the death penalty, in this country, (my emphasis) I have never accepted the argument that it represents a sufficient deterrent of itself. And secondly, the argument that killing another person doesn’t bring back the person to life that they have already killed themselves.

So, if I was persuaded of the deterrent arguments or the other arguments, then I would have a different view. But I have never had a persuasive argument put to me on that score and that has been my consistent position throughout my life.

Mr. Rudd is looking jelly-backed on the matter of the death penalty. His moral conviction has been put to the test and he has buckled.

The prime minister has an opportunity to return to his original position and for good reason, says Julian McMahon, a prominent Melbourne barrister who acts for two of the Bali Nine and acted for Melbourne man Van Nguyen who was executed in Singapore in 2005.

In a speech delivered last Friday at the Australian Lawyer’s Alliance Conference in Auckland, Mr. McMahon observed that by “executing the Bali bombers we are giving them what they want – martyrdom, glory and hero-status. Instead, the better deterrent, the more effective punishment, the thing they don’t want, is life imprisonment.”

And if Mr. Rudd was to oppose the death penalty for the Bali bombers he would win respect in our region, Mr. McMahon said.

What turns a politician into a statesman is when he or she stands firm in spite of pressure to abandon the moral high ground. The Bali bombers presents Mr. Rudd with such an opportunity. Over to you, Kevin.