IDSA COMMENT

The Unconventional Prime Minister: An Assessment of Kevin Rudd

July 2, 2010

In one of the decisive and historic moments in Australian politics, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was on the verge of being voted out by his own Labour Party colleagues, made a voluntary and premature exit from office, the reasons for which are not unknown. His meteoric rise and fall, in terms of public opinion, in such a short span was a rare phenomenon. Not only will his untimely exit from office and his unconventional style of functioning be remembered but also the ideas he espoused, particularly in the foreign policy arena, and which led to often contrary results.

Rudd took audacious steps to craft a foreign policy that would make Australia independent of the US influence. His insistence on maintaining good relations with China, particularly during the Bush years, the denial of Uranium supply to India despite supporting the latter at the IAEA and NSG, and reluctance to carry on with the proposed US-India-Japan-Australia quadrilateral were the most prominent steps he took. Moreover, under immense domestic pressure, he also decided to pull out Australian soldiers from Iraq, though he managed this without annoying the United States.

Rudd indicated that his fluency in Mandarin and his good experiences while serving as a diplomat in China would help foster closer ties between Canberra and Beijing. But this elicited criticism from opponents who claimed that getting closer to China would be at the cost of Australia’s time tested ties with the US. One may add here that Rudd did not want Australia to get closer to India as well at the cost of Australia’s ties with China. Australia’s insistence on not including India in the US-Japan-Australia Trilateral military exercise was to ensure cordial relations with China. So was his proposal for a ‘Asia Pacific Community’ - based on the idea that China should be engaged if the countries of the Asia-Pacific including the US are to make full use of the rise of China. The idea was well-intentioned but it did not find many takers in the region.

However, his attempt to establish a cosy relationship with China had many grey areas that cannot be overlooked. The Rio Tinto Controversy and Rudd’s warnings to China surprised the Australian and international media alike. Also, there was an undercurrent of unease in the 2009 Australian Defence White Paper’s portrayal of China especially on the issue of China’s growing military might. This was the first time in the recent past that Canberra had expressed such concern over China’s evolving military designs in the Asia-Pacific.

Rudd’s vision and approach towards India had many problems as well. During his tenure, India-Australia relations reached an all time low. Rudd reversed the Howard government’s decision to supply Uranium to India. The Australian Labour party has been instrumental in shaping and implementing the nuclear non-proliferation and uranium mining issues. In fact, its stated position was the key factor in Australia’s denial of Uranium to India. Yet, Rudd went on to give approval for a new uranium mine in July 2009, which went against Australia’s much celebrated ‘three mines policy’ - heralded by the Labour Party in 1984 and which maintained support for only three operational mines from which exports were to be permitted and which had determined to call off all further projects. One may add that the gap between Rudd’s theory and practice on climate change issues also proved costly for him. Before coming to power Rudd had advocated a massive cut down in greenhouse gas emissions (60 per cent by 2050), signing of the Kyoto Protocol and the introduction of Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, all of which he saw as right steps in the right direction. Subsequently, however, he deferred the CPRS until 2013.

While Rudd’s proposed ‘super profit tax’ on mining, to generate more revenue was seen as a disincentive for foreign investments, it also tended to go against Indian interests. It is to be noted that Reliance Industries Limited, the biggest Indian private sector company, is investing in a big way in Australia’s mining sector. According to media reports, RIL Australia recently paid $3.45 million to acquire a 49 per cent stake in four exploration licences of Uranium Exploration Australia Ltd.

Deadlocks at the policy makers’ level between India and Australia was intensified due to increasing incidents of attacks on Indian students. Thanks to the intense and often misinformed media debates, public opinion on both sides was inflamed leading to the perception that the Rudd government was at best helpless in dealing with the issue. While in office, Rudd consistently made a case for promoting Asian languages in Australia, though the case of Indian sub-continental languages was conspicuously marginal in his overall scheme of things.

Australia’s open support for Pakistan on the Af-Pak issue and plans to enhance Australia-Pakistan defence cooperation did not send the right signals either to Indian policy makers who wondered about Australia’s approach towards the subcontinent. The recently signed MoU on defence cooperation between Australia and Pakistan, which aims at enhancing training packages from Australia and promoting greater interaction between the armed forces of the two countries, has not been seen positively by the Indian strategic community.

All in all the short Rudd era is another example of the ‘law of unintended consequences’. While there is no denying the fact that Rudd’s ideas on foreign policy were well-intentioned, one cannot possibly overlook the fact that it all fell apart in the course of practice.