Friday, August 12, 2016

Karl du Fresne: Any Australian's preferable to a Kiwi - even Kevin Rudd


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.nzFirst published in The Spectator Australia.

10 comments:

Brian said...

Inter Ditch rivalry or merely journalistic envy??
Dear Me, Have even independent journalists succumbed to this Trans Tasman acrimony? Really is this about Kevin Rudd verses Helen Clark? Well at least Mr Turnbull had the courage to make the Captain’s call over Rudd for this position. But Mr Key took the easy option and that after years of bitter infighting and slanging on the New Zealand political stage; he now comes out in support of Ms Clark. Well at least Hypocrisy is not yet dead!
Between either Rudd or Clark there is little to choose, Rudd is quite obviously unfit for such a position, but have we totally forgotten that our former Prime Minister spat hatred (if only verbally), on our returning Vietnam veterans? This was the woman that reduced our strike Air Force to a non event, and certainly unable to cover our troops in any conflict.
I have a distinct feeling that Karl has entered the time worn vein of Ozzie banging, especially in the” comparison” of Rudd as a Mandela or a John Kennedy, by the same token Mother Theresa or a “Joan of Arc Stake” for Saint Helen..Hope springs eternal!
Just what is this anti Ozzie thing that rears its head, round about Olympic or Bledisloe Cup time? Bit juvenile!!!
An Ozzie an Ozzie and a Kiwi is a Kiwi....and they are both Anzacs , despite those who forget.
Brian

paul scott said...

By a stroke of luck, I learned that the Australian Senate has provision for a New Zealander in it. I rang up my redneck friends in Queensland. They in turn rang up Bob Katter, and its all go. We don’t need an election, because elections don’t work See Australian federal election and Brexit ] and nobody takes any notice of them anyway.
I rang up Pauline Hansen, and she is very excited about the idea, of 'having a partner’ as she put it, to share the front lash to social conservatives
The Australians think it will be a laugh. Wait till they see me restore Tony Abbott.
It will be some time till we can evaporate the UN entirely. I don’t think Murray McCully thinks we have much show, but that’s politicians for you, not just Australians, they have no idea.

Anonymous said...

Karl, you've really lost the plot here - and demonstrate very clearly how much this imagined (by you) situation riles Kiwis. As an Australian living in NZ, who regularly returns to Oz, I can tell you that most Aussies don't give NZ a thought from one day to the next. They don't care mate, so don't get yourself excited about stuff that simply doesn't exist - or maybe you were short of topics to write about ... And, by the way, your statement "competent to take over one of the most powerful jobs in international politics" must be a joke - are you serious, really? The UN is a toothless organisation that accomplishes nothing, it's a waste of space and money - but it is political, one of the few things Helen relishes.

Karl du Fresne said...

Tell me one thing: why should I take any notice of people too gutless to identify themselves?

Karl du Fresne said...

Sorry, I probably should have said: "Tell me one thing, mate." Except that I'm not your mate. How could I be when I don't know who you are? I suggest you take your matey condescension back to Oz with you. It doesn't belong here.

paul scott said...

With the exception of Australia, often oblivious to us, as a big brother can be everywhere we go in the world, we are New Zealand.
Everywhere, even small town America.
I shambled off the Amtrak express at Redwing, Minnesota, population 15,000, one day.
As soon as they saw me walking, look Mum he’s walking along the street, it was imperative to save me.
A big Dodge turned up and delivered me to an expensive Best Western. Next day I was not just me, I was the New Zealander, and I was a gold prospector on my way to the hills, for sure.
I had to look in the mirror to see if I was maybe Edmund Hillary, but not, I had just been handed a reputation.
It is worth knowing what we are thought of in the cloud. Cloud because New Zealand is a fuzzy concept to most of the other 7 billion.
In the Bangkok taxi, I will hear this, S̄t̄hān thī̀ thī̀ mị̀ f̄rạ̀ng mā cāk. “ Falung comes from New Zealand ” the Thai girl says.
Taxi driver // Ah yes, Switzerland, [ or sometimes New Zealand ] very nice. // Thats it. New Zealand is very nice.
It is cold, we have funny old cars, and we send them our apples, kiwi fruit and ice cream. And we are good honest people.
Check that reputation again. Falung New Zealand is good honest. Very funny to hear him talk all one word, long time.
They like us so much they have started stealing our brand name Kiwi.
Zespri, read here. Change brand name to “Kiwi Green “ Do it now, or someone else will take it from us.

All this is why I say to friends going overseas, it is likely you are the only New Zealander they will know. Not the All Blacks, and it is not John Key, it is you.
If you are drunk and disorderly, remember you are an Australian.
If you help an old person across the street you are a New Zealander.
No, not Newzilinder, thats Bob Jones. New Zealander. With pride.

bram52 said...

I'm a Kiwi living in Aussie and have for the last 30 odd years, Rudd is everything you and Brian says he is , basically a conceited idiot, but I have to disagree with you about Helen, Brian has nailed it, she was a disaster for NZ , and as anonymous noted a political animal, which with a lifetime of living ,like Rudd with their snouts deeply embedded in the taxpayer trough neither of them are worth the time of day, Mind you regarding the job as secretary General for the UN ,they are probably both well equipped for it as it's a total waste of time and taxpayer money , both of which they are experts at wasting.

Alan GAWITH said...

Helen Clarke, like most of her ilk, has had her trotters in the public trough for far too long. Its time she was put out to pasture to leave a space for someone young and energetic - or is that too much to hope for? The moribund UN is essentially a club for overpaid, past their use by date ex-politicians and political hangers-on.

Geoff Bourke. said...

Dear Karl, don't you realise that if H. Clark gets the top job, she will be an Australasian?

Karl du Fresne said...

Geoff: Ha!