Anyone who has observed the relationship between Australia and New Zealand over many years is forced to an inescapable conclusion. Some Australians don’t like the idea that New Zealanders can do anything very well, and positively recoil from the thought that they can do anything better than Australia can.
This was the only plausible explanation for the extraordinary contortions over whether the Australian government should back Kevin Rudd in his belated bid for the job of United Nations Secretary-General ahead of New Zealand’s Helen Clark.
For all the hollow sentimental rhetoric spouted every Anzac Day about the closeness of the trans-Tasman bond, the truth is that at the political level, New Zealand is generally regarded as an irritating smaller sibling whose interests are considered only when it suits Canberra to do so. It’s hard to escape the feeling that in the eyes of some high-powered Australian political players, any Australian – even the discredited Mr Rudd – would be preferable to a Kiwi.
Mr Rudd’s now-aborted candidacy had all the hallmarks of a spoiler action that was likely to obliterate whatever chance Miss Clark might have had of securing the big job. It was a desperate play by a bored, under-engaged man anxious to amount to something again.
The irony is that the appointment was unlikely to go to anyone from the Anglo world anyway, since it’s the UN custom to rotate the job on a geographical basis, and it’s generally considered the turn of Eastern Europe. Besides, conventional wisdom holds that the big powers which control the UN Security Council prefer to appoint someone malleable, which Clark is not.
In a recent straw poll, the former Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand ranked only sixth of the 12 contenders. Toss in an Australian candidate to muddy the waters, and she wouldn’t have a bolter’s chance.
That Mr Rudd threw his hat into the ring in the first place was perhaps no surprise. After all, a man with an Olympian intellect – to say nothing of an ego the size of the Simpson Desert – needs a suitably formidable challenge. What was surprising was the breadth of political support for his bid, from senior figures in the coalition government as well as former colleagues from the party which found him intolerable as its leader.
It didn’t seem to matter that Mr Rudd had been an abject failure as Australian prime minister, once jettisoned by his own MPs and later emphatically rejected by Australian voters fed up with his toxic and dysfunctional government.
Neither did it seem to matter that even people on Mr Rudd’s own side (notionally, at least) ridiculed his conceit in thinking he was competent to take over one of the most powerful jobs in international politics. Kristina Keneally, former Labor Premier of New South Wales, called him a psychopathic narcissist and said her labrador dog would do a better job as Secretary-General – a putdown even more stinging than Queensland Senator James McGrath’s remark that he wouldn’t trust Mr Rudd to operate a toaster.
In the end, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made what was described as a captain’s call in announcing the government would not support Mr Rudd’s nomination. Mr Turnbull was as blunt as the laws of political propriety permit in explaining why he had made the decision, simply saying that Mr Rudd was not suitable for the job.
Given Mr Rudd’s erratic history of rudeness, bad temper and general megalomaniacal behaviour, it’s possible that as many Labour voters as coalition supporters agreed. Certainly Mr Rudd’s petulant response to Mr Turnbull’s decision confirms that the Prime Minister made the right call. But what remains unexplained is why so many high-profile figures – including Liberal Party deputy leader Julia Bishop, ambassador to the US Joe Hockey, former Labor Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans and former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson – argued in Mr Rudd’s favour.
Judging by the public comments of Mr Rudd’s supporters, the main consideration seemed not so much his competence for the job as the belief that Australia should be seen as supporting an Australian candidate. This view was articulated by, among others, Richard Woolcott, a former Australian ambassador to the UN. “If an Australian decides to stand I think the Australian government should support that Australian,” Woolcott was quoted as saying.
It didn't seem to matter that there was already a nominee from this part of the world, and one who has the necessary credentials. Miss Clark is respected even by her former political opponents in New Zealand as a woman of formidable ability and proven competence in international affairs. She was a three-term Prime Minister and since 2009 has held the third-highest job in the UN – that of administrator of the UN Development Programme. But she happens to be a New Zealander, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that it would be seen as a blow to Australian pride if a prestigious international job went to a Kiwi when there was an Australian available.
The relationship between the two countries is complex. There’s a lot of genuine affection, but also an undeniable rivalry. New Zealanders are more keenly aware of this than Australians, because Australia is able to ignore New Zealand in a way that isn’t possible in reverse.
This is partly determined by geographical location. New Zealand is an insignificant presence somewhere over Australia’s shoulder, like a more remote Tasmania. But when New Zealand looks out to the world, the first thing it sees is Australia.
Yet for all its size and pretensions to global importance, Australia doesn’t like being upstaged by its smaller bro’. Perhaps that’s why Australian politicians who once regarded Mr Rudd as their bitter enemy, and who rightly highlighted his personal failings, suddenly began singing his praises.
Mr Rudd hadn’t magically metamorphosed into a reincarnation of Nelson Mandela or John F Kennedy, so what had changed? The answer could only be that if someone from Down Under was going to take over the top post in the UN, then it should be an Australian rather than a Kiwi.
Perhaps the most telling fact was that ordinary Australians recognised Mr Rudd’s unsuitability even if the political elites didn’t. An April poll showed that Miss Clark’s candidacy was supported by more than twice as many Australians as Mr Rudd’s, and even Labor voters preferred Clark by a narrow margin. Perhaps that’s what people mean when they talk about the wisdom of crowds.
Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. First published in The Spectator Australia.