As prime minister, Kevin Rudd was the de facto minister for foreign affairs. Stephen Smith was appointed to the job on the basis he would not challenge Rudd, and he did not.

Rudd cast Smith the crumbs and the crap and he became in effect the minister for consular affairs. Smith’s department is not enthralled with his grasp of complex issues nor his intellectual capacity, although he is regarded as decent, if not somewhat bad tempered from time to time, (who wouldn’t be having Rudd steal your oxygen)?

But Rudd’s foreign policy experience was limited and it showed. His Middle East policy was badly balanced. Israel offers little to Australia, except intelligence of dubious value, resting, as it does, within an ideological framework. The value of trade with the rest of the Middle East is $13.5 billion per annum. With a more balanced foreign policy this trade would rapidly increase.

When he should have been firm over Stern Hu, Rudd dived for cover, not a form of diplomacy that the Chinese respect.

Rudd was wrong over Afghanistan. He offended the Indonesian president with his clumsy request for intervention over the Sri Lankan asylum seeker vessel holed up in the port of Merak. The request exposed, for all to see, the limitations of prime ministerial power.

He visited China and not India and reacted poorly to attacks on Indian students, managing, as a result, to badly damage the relationship with an important trading and strategic partner.

He offended most South East Asian countries with his self-indulgent proposal for an Asia-Pacific community. The idea flew like a lead balloon and is now dead, some in ASEAN look askance at Australian diplomacy.

He pushed for a seat on the UN Security Council, spent a lot of money on the quest, when in light of Australia’s relations with the Middle East, Africa and India, there was little prospect of attracting even enough votes to save face.

Rudd was weak on human rights, ceasing the processing of Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers, on whaling and climate change.

He interfered in a senior diplomatic appointment, on the basis of a personal grudge. There are few in the department who respect him.

His foreign policy forays were not successful.

Julia Gillard has the opportunity to draw on considerable but hitherto unused or under-utilised talent in the form of Greg Combet, Maxine McKew, Gary Gray and Bill Shorten. Combet has the skill and intelligence to make a very good minister for foreign affairs.

*Bruce Haigh is a retired senior diplomat with 25 years experience.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey