Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has issued a dramatic public humiliation of former prime minister Kevin Rudd, announcing that the government will not be nominating him for the role of UN Secretary-General on the basis that he is “not well-suited” to the role.
The decision is also a public slapdown of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who had supported Rudd’s nomination, against the wishes of Liberal Party conservatives.
There’s a long, bipartisan tradition in Australia that Aussies support other Aussies in international forums, no matter their party. Partisanship is supposed to stop at the border. That’s why Labor governments and Labor MPs have backed former Coalition politicians, and vice versa. Rudd himself — often to the chagrin of his colleagues — strongly followed this tradition and extended it domestically, nominating former Liberal and National party leaders Brendan Nelson and Tim Fischer to diplomatic positions. Rudd even drew criticism from colleagues for appointing former treasurer Peter Costello to the board of the Future Fund.
Now Malcolm Turnbull has ended the bipartisan tradition, although he insists that it has nothing to do with partisanship, and everything to do with Rudd’s suitability.
Complicating Rudd’s candidacy was the fact that the former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark is campaigning to be the first female UN Secretary-General. The Abbott government — overlooking that Clark was a NZ Labour prime minister — supported her candidacy, although Rudd had not yet formally announced his own. There’s no doubt that Clark is well-respected internationally, has a strong CV, and hailing from across the Tasman as she does, she is as close to an honorary Aussie as you can get without being a local.
And on the face of it, there is little to fault Turnbull’s judgment. Kevin Rudd is a toxic egomaniac who can only function in a managerial sense in the extraordinary circumstances of a crisis, but who is entirely unable to operate in a normal management environment. If the UN Secretary-Generalship were decided on merit (which, of course, it never is), he would be lucky to get an interview. But that’s very far from the end of the story.
Turnbull has been forced into this decision by his own weakened position. He came within a couple of seats of losing the election and the right within his party have repeatedly signalled they are prepared to take him on. He currently faces a backbench revolt, partly orchestrated by the right, against the government’s superannuation tax changes.
It’s very likely that, given Julie Bishop’s support and the tradition of backing Australians internationally, had Turnbull been his own man, Rudd’s name would have gone forward — almost certainly to defeat, given Rudd’s chances were slim at best. But with a cabinet split, the issue turned into one about his leadership.
That’s the position that Turnbull now occupies — a wounded leader too busy looking over his own shoulder to worry about how he’s going to look to the electorate. And, regardless of the community’s mixed views about Rudd, this is a very bad look.
As for Rudd, he might reflect on the way that his own approach to politics had crueled his chances of international glory. The Coalition may have delighted in Rudd’s relentless and ultimately successful destabilisation of Julia Gillard. It doesn’t mean any of them respected or admired him for it.