A foreign affair: where does Kevin Rudd’s resignation leave Australia on the world stage?

Kevin Rudd is widely known on the international stage from his time as prime minister then foreign minister. AAP/David Foote

Kevin Rudd’s dramatic resignation as Foreign Minister yesterday has left Australia without a permanent cabinet level representative on the world stage.

Trade Minister Craig Emerson will take over Rudd’s duties in the short to medium term. But the identity of the nation’s next full-time foreign minister will not be known until after next Monday’s leadership spill, and almost certainly not for some time after that as whoever wins goes about the business of forming a cabinet.

What does this mean for Australia? How will having a part-time foreign minister be viewed on the international stage? And was Rudd a success as foreign minister?

The Conversation spoke with Trevor Wilson, former ambassador to Burma, long time diplomat and ANU visiting fellow.


Is there a major problem with Australia having a stand-in foreign minister?

Not necessarily. Craig Emerson is fairly experienced in international economic and trade affairs and he is a relatively senior person in the ministry. I think he will be taken seriously, I think he has the knowledge and he is not going to make any gross errors in policy.

Obviously it is better to have someone who is substantively “in the job”, but if that can’t be done, Emerson is probably the best option in terms of a stand-in.

How will the whole situation be perceived overseas? Shouldn’t a foreign minister be above day-to-day domestic politics?

I don’t think the foreign minister of any country should be swinging to and fro in accordance with domestic political development in his or her home country. But I think it is unrealistic to believe any foreign minister can be independent of, or isolated from, domestic political values and ideas and what the community in a particular country will support in the way of a foreign policy.

A foreign minister has to be well grounded in domestic views and attitudes, what the domestic electorate will support in the way of a foreign policy.

Julia Gillard has an admitted lack of interest in foreign policy. Did this mean Kevin Rudd got more latitude than a foreign minister normally would?

I am not sure about that. I think obviously given Kevin Rudd’s knowledge and experience he was able to play a very active and even leading role in some of the foreign policy forums that he attended [and] meetings he participated in. Indeed, you could even argue that as a former prime minister he was very influential in those bodies and settings. He may have, as they say, played above his weight.

Craig Emerson is now temporary foreign minister. AAP/Alan Porrit

He was certainly committed to doing a good job for the government. He needed to demonstrate in whatever he was doing that he had the support of his prime minister because no foreign minister can do without that.

I’m not aware of problems in terms of his reporting back or carrying out instructions he may or may not have had from Julia Gillard as prime minister. It is not obvious that there were foreign policy problems because of any personal difficulties.

Julia Gillard deliberately gave Rudd some leeway, simply because of his experience and knowledge and the fact that he is well known internationally. I think it was a correct call.

Rudd was criticised in some quarters when he was prime minister for effectively taking over the foreign minister’s role. Is this true, and was then foreign minister Stephen Smith hampered by having an experienced diplomat in Rudd as prime minister?

I have heard this, obviously and it was also obvious that Kevin Rudd, as somebody who was very experienced in diplomacy and interested in foreign policy issues, was going to be more involved and active than other prime ministers in Australia in the past.

But I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that Stephen Smith was not an effective or “full-time” foreign minister. There are a number of areas where Stephen Smith made a very significant contribution. One of them is an area I know better than most, which is Burma where he made a very important statement of policy which is still the current policy for Australia.

He was a very cautious foreign minister and I don’t think he sought to give the role a lot of colour and flair, that’s not his style. But nevertheless I don’t think there was any question that he was not taken seriously as foreign minister. He did it for quite a long period, he certainly demonstrated his expertise across the whole range of policy areas and was a very active foreign minister.