Replacing Rudd: what to look for in a new Australian foreign minister

The new foreign minister must understand Australia’s place on the world stage. AAP/Tony McDonough

Australia’s foreign minister portfolio has been left vacant and the discussion on who will replace Kevin Rudd is now underway. Whatever his flaws as a prime minister, Rudd was perceived, on a certain level at least, as a foreign minister who discharged his functions with purpose and effect.

That is, until he resigned in the middle of performing his duties in the United States to signal his leadership challenge.

Still, that remarkable incident certainly did not dissuade his colleagues, such as Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird, and his counterpart in Sweden, Carl Bildt, from praising his talent. Both expressed similar sentiments, if only via the busy medium of Twitter.

A better relationship with the PM

What then, should be part of the resume of a foreign minister in serving Australia? For one thing, the foreign affairs ministry should not be the rubber stamp for either the Prime Minister’s office or the Defence Ministry.

It was clear from such political fiascos as the “Malaysia Solution” that Rudd’s department had been sidelined. The foreign ministry officials, who kept reminding their colleagues in Canberra that Malaysia’s human rights record on refugees was abysmal, seemed to be mere Cassandras. Instead, functionaries working for the Attorney-General and Department of Immigration decided to ignore international and legal realities in pushing forth a solution that was ultimately struck down by the High Court.

The foreign minister, in short, must be the prime minister’s ear.

Listening to that ear might be something else. It was clear, for instance, that Rudd showed a more sentient grasp on the issues at hand surrounding Wikileaks than his boss. In suggesting that the security flaws lay with the United States in terms of how the information was leaked to begin with, he was pointing out an obvious fact: that Assange had not broken any Australian laws and for that reason, could not be charged or convicted. Prime Minister Gillard thought otherwise – Assange was guilty, even in the absence of any charges.

Another divergence took place over views on whether Palestine should be recognised as a state. Rudd did what he was meant to, suggesting a diplomatic line on the United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood. Gillard baulked at the suggestion of abstention, betraying a clumsy sense of the situation in insisting that Australia back Israel’s objection to it.

Understanding our place

Precisely because the foreign minister performs the role of Ambassador in Chief for a country’s mission, an international presence is important without being intrusive. This is particularly so for Australia’s termed “middle power status”. (The term, while being impossible to define, is accepted by foreign policy wonks.)

Too much noise can make the plaintiff’s calls seem like carping, an embarrassment. Too little may suggest complicity, indifference or just plain simple toadying. Rudd at times fell somewhere in between, the nature of Australia’s often contradictory position as a “middle power”.

An Australian foreign minister should try to be less grand than quietly effective, though that was not always in Rudd’s job description. Unreality does creep in, notably over such matters as efforts to obtain a non-permanent seat on the Security Council.

Few countries would ever vote for Australia’s admission, because UN members know they would be getting another American voice in the forum, however small that voice would be. These factors did not deter Rudd’s efforts, but should be heeded by the next person to do the job.

A level head

An effective foreign minister tests the waters, takes the temperature – even if it is in North Africa. When he called for a no-fly zone over Libya last year, Rudd was testing international opinion, and found enough backing for a means to place a brake on the Gaddafi regime.

Was it a sense of narcissistic importance, a boutique-styled foreign policy? In some ways, yes – Australia’s role in the Arab Spring is a mere footnote, a barely audible sound. Despite that, it is fair to say that outrage over the conflict had found its way into the corridors of the United Nations. Over a few weeks, Rudd’s efforts to pursue the zone eventually found form in a UN Security Council Resolution, though what role he personally played will be impossible to assess.

Disaster management

Rudd showed considerable qualities as a foreign minister when dealing with Australian responses to natural disaster. This is an area Australia can excel in. In that sense, his perspective was regional and focused. Japanese officials were particular impressed by the 76-member search and rescue team that was sent to aid it in the wake of the tsunami. The same qualities were on show again when Rudd deployed Australian resources to assist in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake.

Pacifying the neighbours

A good foreign minister, like any foreign minister, needs to delegate. The problem here is what falls within that remit. Rudd’s eyes tended to be wide and far – the Pacific Islands were just too near and not so dear to him. Enter then, Richard Marles, who was saddled with the task PNG? As an editorial in the Australian cautioned last year, “There are no short cuts for Australia” in the Pacific.

The new foreign minister should neglect the Pacific at their peril.

The road ahead

What is left on the table? In truth, much. The situation with asylum seekers will continue to plague the government. The global security environment remains tense and seemingly intractable.

Afghanistan remains a dark void, and even Rudd could barely hide the realities there. As long as the Gillard government insists on a bald parroting of the coalition line in Afghanistan, it really doesn’t matter how competent the foreign minister is.

That is, unless he or she gives the Prime Minister the brutally realistic brief she needs to hear.