Lowy Institute

After five years and 300,000 words, this is my final Canberra Column. Is that a mountain of punditry or just a maze?

A quick wade through the wordage leaves little doubt about the recurrent theme that runs through the five years: this was the era of Kevinism. As Prime Minister, The Kevin was his own über foreign minister. Then, as PM-in-exile, he was foreign minister. A column devoted to Canberra's place in the foreign policy firmament could ask for no more.

In the month the column kicked off, April 2008, two efforts were devoted to Rudd's 2020 Summit, covering the discussions on 'Australia's Future in the Region and the World', one of ten streams running through the giant talkfest in Parliament House involving 1000 Australians. We had a new leader who wanted to try new things; there's a thought and a moment that faded fast.

Much of the coverage of The Kevin was devoted to his efforts to remake Asia's security architecture. The first ever Canberra Column mused on the old divide in Australian diplomacy between the Northeast Asianists and the ASEANists, suggesting that Kevin Rudd, as a Northener, would run into plenty of trouble with ASEAN.

The spark had been a speech Rudd gave in Washington saying the Six-Party talks should be broadened (and Australia enrolled as a new member) to create Asia's new security structure; this was at a time when a deal with North Korea looked possible and the Six Party process seemed like a success. The implied Rudd message was that ASEAN might be in the driver's seat, but it wasn't actually driving anywhere; time for a new vehicle and more drivers.

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From that speech, ASEAN had Rudd in its sights. Then, in June, 2008, Rudd unveiled his idea for an Asia Pacific Community. The Canberra Column had a great time charting the ups and downs of the struggle with ASEAN that followed. The right to roam well beyond Canberra meant I was in Singapore in mid-2009 to hear the Rudd speech to the Shangri La Dialogue on how absolutely wonderful and central ASEAN is. And, more importantly, to note that, in the written text of the speech, Rudd had gone from large 'C' Community to small 'c' community. 

Australia no longer aspired to an Asia Pacific Community; ideas of Asia Pacific community would suffice. Getting excited about stuff like this explains why one of my career highlights was covering a dozen APEC summits (it's not the funny shirts, I tell you, it's the zest and zing of the communiqués). 

By April, 2010, the column interpreted a Rudd speech as the Prime Minister flying the white flag of surrender to ASEAN, calling it a nod of obeisance rather than an actual surrender. The turning point in the Canberra Column's view of Kevinism was a three-part series in July 2009, all built around a one-word description of the Rudd Government: 'dysfunctional'. That view of Rudd had become the whispered consensus around much of this town by the end of his first full year in power. By mid-2009, it was the interpretation begging to be written. 

When Rudd walked away from his climate change commitments in 2010, this was the Canberra Column conclusion: 'It's all very well to campaign in poetry yet govern in prose, but Kevin Rudd is in danger of descending to direction-via-drivel.'

Rudd had a bad case of the first term balls-up blues but caucus wasn't going to give him time to recover. In the work of a moment, he was cut down, disposed of like a state premier no longer able to dominate the nightly news.

The Rudd encore as Foreign Minister was frenetic: his work rate was prodigious, the ambition nearly as high. The self-confidence and the sense of conviction never flagged. The intensity was undoubted; only the ultimate intent was regularly questioned. Then, in February, Gillard took The Kevin back into caucus and did it to him again, only this time with feeling.

Rudd's ability as an international thinker is undoubted. Just scan the series of foreign policy speeches he has penned as a backbencher in the last few months on a US-China strategic roadmap, the priorities of China's new leadership, the UN Security Council and the Middle East, and the latest version of the argument he has been making throughout the year for a Pax Pacifica to replace the Pax Americana and avert a Pax Sinica.

For any foreign affairs tragic, The Kevin is the gift that keeps on giving, and the Canberra Column gives appropriate thanks. Time now to give thanks also to Sam Roggeveen and Allan Gyngell.

The Column came about because in building the Lowy Institute, Allan decided he needed a blog not a printed journal; Lowy had to be in the game every day, not monthly or quarterly or whenever. It seems more of an obvious a call today than it did then. Having got that right, Allan then achieved the perfect fit for the editor's job in Sam Roggeveen. I don't need to tell you why Sam is a good editor – you have the evidence before you every time you look at The Interpreter.

I came on board by arguing to Allan that if he was doing journalism, then a Canberra journalist might be handy. That handshake with Allan and the Roggeveen combination of competence and ambition have happily driven my bit of the experiment; for a few idle seconds it was going to be the Canberra Causerie, but there are some things even The Interpreter should not try to translate.

Breaking the iron habit of a lifetime in daily journalism, the column had no deadline: file when finished, rather than finish because it's time to file. Luxury! The digital domain offers many freedoms. No longer driven by the daily hack version of the Cartesian mantra (write now, think later) I have, instead, been able to enjoy the related pleasure James Reston ascribed to writing a regular column: how do I know what I think until I see what I write?

I am off next year to repeat the experience at a similar address just up the street at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Farewell to the Canberra Column; it has been a privilege and a huge pleasure to write for this audience in this place. Thanks and cheers.

Photo by Flickr user Don Shearman.

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The career of Des Ball traces Australia's core strategic obsessions: the global balance, the US alliance and US bases in Oz, defence of the continent, and the creation of an Asian security community.

As a public intellectual, Ball has had a big impact on the understanding and then acceptance of US bases on Australian soil and the way Australia thinks about defending that soil by itself. Equally, he has been a major second-track player in Australia's contributions to the laborious but vital efforts at military and security confidence-building in Asia. 

To gauge Ball's standing, consider these tributes from two of Australia's longest serving foreign ministers.

From the Liberal side, Alexander Downer says 'Des Ball has been an academic gem. He has challenged, revealed, reviled and argued his way through the foreign policy and security debates of the modern era.' From Labor, Gareth Evans praises Ball for 'an intellectual life magnificently well-led well-lived.'

Neither side of politics could claim him. As Gareth Evans posed the question: Is Des Ball a dove with hawkish characteristics or a hawk with dovish characteristics? The answer offered by Ball — showered with praise during a 'Desfest' at the Australian National University last week – is that he is a realist, as deeply committed to liberal institutionalism as the inductive approach.

In the sort of homage usually paid to the horizontal man, friends and colleagues gathered to honour the still vertical and vocal man and mark the 25th anniversary of Ball's Special Professorship at the ANU.

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The book of 18 essays published in Ball's honour calls him an 'Insurgent Intellectual'. It is an inspired depiction of the Ball method, both painstaking and unconfined, and it is a mark of  Ball's regional standing that the book is published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

One element in the Ball insurgent style is his use of journalist techniques, linked to the most rigorous and painstaking academic discipline. Like any good hack, he knows the face-to-face interview will give you nuggets that the documents never give up. You don't understand the story until you have walked the ground, talked to and counted the troops, identified units and weapons, photographed and recorded everything, and worked out exactly the type and significance of the signals antennae. And better than most hacks, Ball always seems to get his hands on the documentary evidence.

Des is a hoarder not a burner of secret papers. Some journalists always burn the leaked paperwork before they publish for fear of the raid or writ, but most can't bear to destroy the evidence. The Ball approach was to hide stuff in ever more ingenious places; he buried various versions of Australia's top secret strategic guidance in plastic esky containers in his backyard. I was once talking to Des about something he'd written and he rather mournfully admitted that he'd forgotten where he hid the relevant document and had despaired of finding it again. 

All those skills were on display in the extraordinary intellectual marathon which is the Ball investigation and unveiling of the role of US intelligence bases in Australia, especially Pine Gap. Richard Tanter tracks that academic detective story in this essay, judging:

Desmond Ball's labours through four decades to elucidate the character of United States defence and intelligence facilities in Australia, to document the evidence, test the balance of benefits and dangers to both national security and human security, and then tell the story to his fellow Australians is unparalleled in Australian intellectual and political life.

The knowledge Ball put into the public realm made it possible for the Australian Labor Party to embrace the US bases and re-commit to the alliance. Australia was able to move to a position of 'full knowledge and consent' on the bases, and Des Ball takes much of the credit for killing off a culture of secrecy which had seen the bases as taboo, dark places subject to limited Australian knowledge and even less consent. 

Kim Beazley describes Ball's work as 'a critical part of the foundation of core elements of Australian national security policy.' The former Labor leader and Defence Minister says Ball helped to transform the significance of the bases for US-Australia relations.

The range of the Ball intellect is demonstrated by his ability to shift from the most intricate and complex world of nuclear targeting (earning the respect of 'every high church in the nuclear priesthood', as Brad Glosserman and Ralph Cossa write) to the slow and subjective effort to create an Asia Pacific security culture, particularly in his role in the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific.

The members of Canberra's substantial Mon community present at the ANU celebrations marked another area of deep and long commitment, Ball's work along the Thai-Burma border (he has made a total of 83 research trips to the area). Here are two Ball facets: one a focus on the signals and intelligence of the Burmese Army, the other what it all this means for people. Ball describes the two strands this way:

One is that through the process of monitoring communications I got a very real understanding of the extent of human rights abuses that were being committed by Burmese army units against villages. The other is a personal commitment to some of those ethnic groups. If I am really such an expert in strategic and defence matters, as I am sometimes portrayed, then I think that I have an obligation to apply some of that expertise to assisting some of those ethnic armed groups. So where I think I have expertise that can help them I believe that I have an obligation to apply it.

Des Ball is an Australian original, able to construct a roll-your-own cigarette with the aplomb of an old bushie before turning his mind to subjects both arcane and awesome. He is a true Australian in both his passion for his country, his Australian persona, and his intellectual devotion to telling Australians the truth.

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In cabinet, foreign policy choices normally and naturally reside with the prime minister and foreign minister. The rule was pithily expressed by Alexander Downer when I asked him once how a decision had been treated by cabinet: 'The Prime Minister voted for it and I voted for it, so it went through with a clear majority.'

The Downer dictum is one of many proofs that a foreign minister's single most important diplomatic relationship is with the PM. When the stars are properly aligned and that relationship is sound, much else can follow. Thus, when a prime minister rolls the foreign minister on a key decision, the ripples go in many directions. And when a foreign minister overturns a prime minister's wishes, then the ripples can become waves.

When Julia Gillard shifted Labor policy on uranium sales to India in November last year without even consulting her then Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, it was a major sign that the strange experiment was nearly at an end and the tensions were becoming explosive. As this column said at the time, the way Gillard dudded Rudd showed she could no longer consult the Foreign Minister on foreign policy: there was not much left in the relationship and everything to play for.

With that as the comparison, how do we rate Bob Carr's rout of Gillard last week over Australia's vote in the UN on the status of Palestine?

Carr's standing and perceptions about his throw weight have been enhanced. He took on his leader and won a foreign policy argument in a way Stephen Smith, for instance, could never have imagined when serving as Rudd's Foreign Minister. But this is not all about Bob. Carr prevailed because cabinet and caucus joined in revolting against Gillard's preference to stand beside Israel, the US and Canada to vote No against Palestine. While Carr defined the policy point at issue, the victory was delivered by weight of numbers in the parliamentary Labor Party.

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The foreign policy defeat for Gillard may not do much damage to her leadership inside Labor. But it was a sharp reminder to Gillard that what Caucus gives, it can also take away. She ends the parliamentary year still in the top job, yet with a reminder that her job is to listen as well as lead. A leader's preferences can prevail only so far; Kevin Rudd might have benefited from such a lesson at an early stage of his presidential prime ministership.

On the policy point at issue, Carr can claim with some justice that the history of Australia's approach to Israel and Palestine favoured his argument to stay neutral in the UN vote. To track that history, see the two Parliamentary Library research papers which set out this record: one covering 1947 to 2007, the other on policy under Rudd and Gillard.

The previous column on this issue noted Kishore Mahbubabni's argument that, on Israel-Palestine, Australia has voted in the UN the same way as Canada; he called this 'geopolitical folly' because Australia does not receive the same blessings from geography as Canada. This time, Australia did not vote like Canada, although not too much of the decision was due to a greater awareness of Islamic sensitivities in Indonesia and Malaysia. Gareth Evans probably carried as much weight with his argument about Australia being on the wrong side of history.

But perhaps domestic politics rather than history or foreign policy was tolling loudest in caucus. When looking for answers in Canberra, always look at where the voters are. And on Israel-Palestine, the demographics are heading Palestine's way in Oz, just as they are in Israel. The 2011 census showed that Australia has 476,000 people who list their religious affiliation as Islam and 97,000 who list Judaism.

Bob Carr was arguing about being on the right side of a lot of potential voters as well as the right side of history.

Photo by Flickr user hkfuey97.

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One bit of the Asian Century that has already arrived in Canberra is the way the Prime Minister keeps flying off to meet Asian leaders.

Over a three month period, Julia Gillard has done Asia Pacific duty at APEC in Vladivostok, attended the Asia-Europe summit in Vientiane, and co-chaired the Bali Democracy Forum with the presidents of Indonesia and South Korea. Back in June, Gillard was at the G20 summit in Mexico, and the G20 is as much an expression of the Asian Century as any of the other talkfests. Now Gillard is back in Canberra after her final trip to the peak for this year, the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.

The summit cycle, especially in the final third of the year, has become an established element in an Australian prime minister's calendar. This is far from ho-hum stuff, but the rituals of regionalism, jet speeds and satellite saturation conspire to deliver a certain recurrent familiarity. All the leaders' group photos start to blur – even the ones with funny shirts.

One benefit of sticking around Canberra for decades is the ability to remark on how remarkable all this summitry is for a nation that still anguishes over notions of region and belonging. 

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When I started reporting Australia's leader going to summits in the 1970s, the chance for prime ministerial multilateralism was decidedly limited. The PM got to go to the Commonwealth every two years to talk about Africa, while the new and exciting chance for summitry was offered by the South Pacific Forum. Apart from that, zilch!

Malcolm Fraser went to one ASEAN summit (they then occurred only once or twice a decade) and his pining to attend to the G7 never got beyond the wishing and hoping stage.

That era of famine has slowly given way to a feast of fly-away functions. The Asia summitry which has become a recurring element of the prime ministerial diary is more a reflection than a driver of an era of profound change. Yet constant summitry has shaped the job description of this Oz leader and all who will follow her. 

It was noteworthy (in the sense of being shocking and having few precedents) that The Australian started this week with an editorial praising Gillard's performance on the summit trail, 'successfully representing Australia on the world stage':

Only the most churlish would dispute that the Prime Minister deserves praise for the way she has represented our interests in the 10 overseas trips she has made in the past 12 months. She clearly would not lay claim to being a modern-day Talleyrand, but she has made good on her pledge when she made her "I'm not passionate about foreign affairs" admission to be "a feisty advocate" for our national interests.

Treasure that editorial endorsement for its rarity while accepting its accuracy.

Gillard has tracked John Howard in her summit trajectory, starting off as reluctant, even resistant, yet slowly growing in confidence through repeat exposure. Part of that evolution is the simple realisation, on reaching the summit, that all politicians, whatever system they emerge from, have similarities. An apparatchik is ever an apparatchik; they must always be able to count and reach to control. And all apparatchiks understand the rule Ronald Reagan urged on his negotiators: 'When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat.'

So, in Phnom Penh, there was little light shed on the vexed issue of the South China Sea, but the heat keeps building. 

The East Asia Summit was also notable for the formal launch of a significant race between trade groupings centred on the US and China. Or to put the contest in the negative, one version of Asia's trade future that excludes China and another that excludes the US. Stephen Grenville gives an excellent account of these 'two different and perhaps competing approaches to trade liberalisation': the ASEAN-centred Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the US-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership. As I've argued previously, this is a contest between Chinese noodles and a US steak dinner, and all sides are becoming more explicit in noting that element of contest between the Asian future imagined by the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington against Asia's mandarins and moguls.

Australia is part of both efforts but claims that this competition can turn out to be complimentary. That is the optimistic view offered by the Asian Century White Paper while being explicit in seeing that a race is afoot:

Negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership could create momentum for competitive liberalisation and put Australia on two complementary pathways to a free trade area of the Asia–Pacific. Australia welcomes and encourages these processes. We recognise that outcomes agreed in one negotiation that facilitate deeper economic integration will encourage new members to join, and also create pressure to adopt similar liberalisation in competing negotiations.

At the summit, the leaders can appear as complementary as they like. In the negotiating trenches, the words from this passage that count will be 'competition' and 'pressure'. The heat matters as much as the light.

The point about a rolling series of summits is to get some sense of cohesion and control in a deeply competitive environment. As Gillard flew back from her final leaders' meeting of the year, she could reflect that the Phnom Penh version, in both its geo-economic and geo-political dimensions, underscored the truth that what cannot be agreed at the summit is as important as what can be clinched.

Photo by Flickr user Julia Gillard.

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Australia has shifted a long way beyond the comforting promise that it could engage with Asia without having to change itself. 

The Asian Century White Paper enshrines the understanding that much in Australia must be transformed. The White Paper is a map identifying 25 important roads with some routes only lightly sketched. Or, if you like, see it as a menu that doesn't give the price of the meals. The problems of process and politics explain some of those shortcomings, but a policy that doesn't account for the pesos is deeply problematic.

The White Paper does not proclaim a new era so much as mark another important moment in The Great Asia Project that Australia has been consciously and consistently pursing for 40 years. John Howard identified the start date for The Great Asia Project as 1972: 'For more than 40 years, every serious political leader in Australia has been committed to the belief that close engagement and collaboration with our Asian neighbours was critical to Australia's future.'

The point about 'every serious political leader' is a notable one which I'll come back to. On 'engagement and collaboration', the White Paper offers plenty of data on what has been achieved in the first four decades of The Great Asia Project; the journey from now is as much about what must happen inside Australia as it is about dealing with Asia.

To summarise the argument in a few words: for Australia, Asia is near, not far. We must be in, not out. Australia must be more than engaged, it must be committed (drawing on the old joke that, in the production of bacon and eggs, the hen is engaged but the pig is committed!).

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The White Paper is the biggest possible policy statement of the 'all change for Asia' position. This is a shift beyond the old political orthodoxy or implicit common ground in the arguments between Howard and Keating, who both thought Asia would mostly love us as we are. Howard famously saw no need to choose between our history and geography. Keating embraced geography over history but, apart from the need to ditch the monarchy, his mantra was about Australia integrating, not transforming.

Now the discussion is about what Australia must do within itself to adjust to Asia, as well as what Asia is doing to Australia; no longer is it merely a matter of what Australia can do for Asia.

The White Paper starts with the words, 'Asia's rise is changing the world', and then goes on to talk about all the ways Australia is going to have to shift to deal with the 'staggering scale and pace' of these 'profound' developments. That is a profoundly domestic document (well suited to Julia Gillard) as it ranges over the Asian impact on Australia's public service and executive suites and schools. Thus, domestic policies will have to supply the real details of many of the 25 national objectives on the White Paper's map or menu. The forthcoming education funding model, for instance, is going to carry quite an Asian Century load.

One interesting element in the responses to the White Paper is in all the ways the dogs didn't bark. The barking we have heard has been mostly about the lack of dollars, not about the direction.

Malcolm Cook remarks on the limited coverage by the tabloids. The tabloids are, indeed, important attack dogs because of their finely tuned populist noses. The idea of teaching Asian languages to every Australian kid did not, apparently, look like red meat to the redtops. Nothing to bark at there; back to rising electricity prices.

Malcolm's worry is that the tabloid lack of interest indicates Australians just don't want to think about Asia. Perhaps, but maybe many Australians, like the tabloids, didn't see much to get excited about: Asia is important? Yeah, got that memo a while ago. Asia is paying the national bills? Knew that. Just hope we don't have to get our heads around Mandarin to help the kids with the homework. Asia is our future? Tick! Get back to us when you've worked out the details. The people expect the polity to do the policy particulars.

In all the various reactions to the White Paper, there have been a lot of 'Yes, but...' responses (Yes, but where are the dollars?) and even been a bit of 'Yes, of course'. But there haven't been any vehement NO responses.

The Great Asia Project is the agreed position of every significant Australia political party. There is no anti-Asia element on the left, right or middle of Oz politics. Compare and contrast the Oz position with Britain, where Euro-scepticism amounting to Europhobia is a throbbing element of mainstream politics. In the geography-history stakes, many Poms would like to veto geography and escape back into history; that is not an option that has had much of a run in Oz politics for decades.

To use John Howard's phrase, 'every serious political leader in Australia' for four decades has been pushing The Great Asia Project and the effort has already changed the nation. From immigration policy to tariff levels, this country has been getting ready for the Asian Century for quite a while.

Julia Gillard's challenge is not just a matter of delivering the dollars to do what the White Paper promises. She also has to find ways to persuade and inspire to match the ambitions. The gap between vision and strategy is well captured by Paul Kelly:

In 40 years covering national governments I cannot recollect a previous vision statement that has been so ambitious nor a statement where the gulf between present outcomes and future benchmarks is so substantial.

In deciding to have the Asia Century inquiry in the first place, Gillard took close advice from Paul Keating. It was classic Keating conjuring that he could compress the essence of the White Paper into one vivid image. China and India, Keating said, are on track to becoming the largest economies in the world, and this is like switching the world's magnetic field: 'The intensity of this polarity shift is of such magnitude, all the filings of Australian foreign, trade, investment and cultural policy should find themselves going in the direction of that magnetic field.'

Gillard should sit down with Keating again to discuss the ups, downs and magnetic effects of trying to turn an Asian vision into Australian votes, much less a working policy.

Photo by Flickr user avlxyz.

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Taste the Asian Century White Paper from the perspectives of process and politics.

The machinery stuff (the process) is always interesting in Canberra, and usually revealing. If this had been the Henry Review instead of a White Paper it would have been bigger, bolder, broader, and almost certainly more adventurous. A lot of what Henry and his team originally drafted got cut because this was not to be Dr Ken's take on the future but a Gillard Government statement of P-O-L-I-C-Y approved by Cabinet.

A White Paper is a government nailing itself to P-O-L-I-C-Y, or vice versa. That is why the established process has long been to do the review or Green Paper first, to shoot for the high spots before retreating to the safer realms of the formal White Paper which eventually follows. The old process reflected an understanding that good policy takes time and argument and even a bit of trial and error. New politics disdains such stuff — the Government must always know the answers and be uniformly on-message.

The 273 submissions to the inquiry will be of continuing use as a snapshot of Australia having a discussion with itself about Asia. The ambition and sense of adventure in those submissions hint at how much wider a Henry review could have roamed if not constrained by the need to be P-O-L-I-C-Y. The White Paper walks some of its own talk by offering up translations of its Foreword in Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese. The Executive Summary is already in Chinese with the other five translations pending.

One other point where process has changed is that parliament has dropped away. White Papers used to be important documents that were presented first to parliament. No more. Kevin Rudd released his Defence White Paper on a Navy ship in Sydney Harbour because it made for great pictures.

In the continual football match between Minders United and Westminster City, the Minders just scored another win. Releasing the document in Sydney was a considerable coup for the Lowy Institute, but not so good for the standing of parliament.

With this observation, we shift from process to the politics of the White Paper. Read More


 
The White Paper gives Julia Gillard a big bit of Asia policy that does not have Kevin Rudd's name on it, nor does it reflect his considerable foreign policy intellect. That, bluntly, was always part of its political purpose. 

One reason the Asian Century process had to be run by the Prime Minister's Department was that it could never have been given to a Foreign Affairs Department headed by K Rudd. Minders United saw one benefit of releasing the White Paper at the weekend as the chance to mount a sizeable counter attack to the raid by a Rudd stalwart, Maxine McKew, who was releasing her book on the regicide. Peter Hartcher captures exactly one element of the politics of the White Paper launch:

Knowing the publication date for McKew's book weeks in advance, the government has decided to deliver its long-delayed Asian Century white paper on Sunday. This is transparently an effort to drown McKew's accusatory voice, to stop the story rolling into the new parliamentary sitting week. Gillard plans simply to roll over McKew.

Not all political considerations are so dastardly. In the good-policy-can-be-good-politics category it is noteworthy how the White Paper places education at the centre of much of its discussion. Remember that when Julia Gillard made her famous comment that she had no feel for foreign policy it was to make the contrasting point that her real passion was for education.

Framing the Asian Century as one that will be won in the classrooms is to shift the game onto Gillard's ground. The political drumbeat from Gillard is that she is getting on with governing and some of that drumming is getting through. 

The Australian newspaper had three headline dot points across the top of its front page today. Two of them were from the White Paper ('Language option for all children' and 'Hawke-Keating legacy invoked'). The third point was what truly mattered for Minders United: 'Newspoll: Labor draws level'; the latest opinion poll has the government tied 50-50 with the Opposition in the two-party preferred vote. One year out from the election, this Government thinks it is now in with a chance.

The political drumbeat sets the rhythm for policy. So building on these elements of process and policy, the next column will consider how the Asian Century White Paper stacks up as policy. Or, to use the politico-speak common at Minders United: What's the vision? Give us the narrative!

Photo courtesy of Lowy Institute/Sydney Heads.

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In its quest for a UN Security Council Seat, to be decided by the General Assembly on Thursday, Australia has kept running into Israel and Palestine. 

The race for the seat has been with Luxembourg and Finland, but Israel and Palestine have become a fascinating element of the contest for the two seats allocated to the Western European and Others Group in which Australia finds itself anachronistically located. Israel and Palestine have posed hard questions for Canberra at both ends of the diplomatic scale, ranging from issues of high principle down to the hard-edged politics of winning an election fight.

To give an example from the count-the-numbers political end: in 2008, Kevin Rudd received advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that the 2018 UNSC bid offered Australia its best chance of winning a seat. The primary opponent in that race: Israel, one of the 28 members of the Western European and Others grouping, along with Australia.

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Rudd forswore the chance to run against Israel, opting instead for the earlier 2012 bid. Had he accepted the timetable offered him in 2008, Australia would have given itself a full ten years to mount its case. And to repeat: its key opponent in the Western European and Others Group would have been Israel. There's no such thing as a sure winner in horse racing or multilateral diplomacy, but Australia would have been the un-backable favourite.

Israel announced its bid for the 2018 contest back in 2005 after joining the Western European and Others Group in 2000; before that, it had been blocked from playing any role in the UN's Asia Group. For Israel, just being able to enter the race is a significant achievement. And in that contest, Israel starts with only two sure votes – its own, and that of the US.

Rudd's decision to run for a 2013-14 slot was probably a function of impatience and enthusiasm rather than any aversion to facing off against Israel. But if Luxembourg pips Oz in the Security Council Stakes, the Foreign Affairs hardheads will bite their tongues while silently shaking their heads. It would have been so much easier to run against Israel, rather than having to run around the Israel-Palestine issue.

The sense of that sentiment was underlined by the emotion in the General Assembly last year over Palestine's dramatic demand for recognition as a state with full UN membership. The excitement level is down this year as Palestine reaches, instead, for recognition as a non-member observer state. Even that lesser-status issue could have derailed Australia if Palestine's request had gone to the General Assembly ahead of Thursday's decision on UNSC seats. Fortunately for Australia's candidacy, Palestine is content to wait until after the US election next month before it gets an observer state verdict.

When the previous big Palestine vote decision went the rounds of the Canberra kitchen a while ago, Kevin Rudd (as Foreign Minister) said Australia should abstain but Julia Gillard ruled that Australia would vote against Palestine. Australia opposed Palestine's campaign under Howard, abstained under Rudd, and under Gillard is now back in the 'no' camp, causing Alison Broinowski to wonder: 'If Australian foreign policy is so out of step with the global majority, and so responsive to the wishes of the United States (and indeed Israel), why would UN member states want to waste a seat on Australia?' Gareth Evans argues that 'being on the wrong side of history is never a comfortable position', and that is where Australia stands, with the US and Israel, in resisting 'the tide of international sentiment in favour of moving now to recognize Palestinian statehood.'

If Australia loses on Thursday, then that tide of history will have washed over Canberra's hopes. And if Australia wins, then it is going to have two years on the Security Council to confront these dilemmas from the front line. Add into this mix two other factors that will loom ever larger for Australia – its position in Asia and its relationship with the world's largest Muslim nation.

Some day, when the UN lurches into the 21st Century, Australia is going to shift group membership so that its UN perch matches its geography and interests: farewell Western Europe, hello Asia. The Indonesia dimension is just as problematic in terms of timelines, but the trends are clear. In thinking about these dimensions, consider an excellent paper by that sharpest of Singapore thinkers, Kishore Mahbubani, entitled 'Australia’s destiny in the Asian Century: Pain or No Pain?'

The short answer to that question, he judges, is that the 'country that will have to make the most painful adjustment to the Asian century is undoubtedly Australia.' As a former ambassador to the UN and President of the Security Council, Mahbubani is well placed to offer some thoughts on the interplay between Australia's region and the nation's actions at the UN. His starting point (quoting a private jest the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, once made to his Australian counterpart, Gareth Evans) is on the need for Australia to do a Green Paper on Indonesia, charting the changes an ever more Islamic Indonesia will demand of its neighbour:

The geopolitical challenges from Indonesia will not come in military terms. Instead, the amount of political "space" Australia occupies in the region could shrink sharply in the event of a political quarrel between Australia and Indonesia. To get a sense of the kind of difficulties that Australia might encounter, Australia should do a scenario exercise of the impact of having a "Dr. Mahathir" type of figure emerging as the newly elected leader of Indonesia. So far, Australia has been blessed with relatively moderate and friendly Indonesian presidents. Is Australia ready for a less friendly Indonesian President?

There is one simple bellwether issue that will indicate the impact on Australia's political space in the region: the Israel-Palestine issue. So far, Australia's voting patterns on UNGA resolutions on this subject have been in line with its fellow members in the Western European and Others Group. Quite often, Australia has voted just as Canada has. However, Canada is geopolitically blessed in being protected by two mighty oceans and by the greatest power in the world, America, from any anger in the Islamic world. Canada is also a free rider on American security. Australia's geopolitical position is almost the exact opposite of Canada vis-à-vis the Islamic world. Yet it votes just like Canada in the UN. Surely this is geopolitical folly of the highest order.

The Canada analogy is ominous, because Canada's last bid for a Security Council seat, in 2010, crashed.

'The race for second and third': photo by Flickr user InspiredInDesMoines.

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Coral Bell had the gentle manners of Miss Marple and a mind as sharp as Henry Kissinger's.

Indeed, Kissinger was a fan of the grand dame who got the modern Oz equivalent of a gong in the 2005 honours for her 'service to scholarship and to teaching as a leading commentator and contributor to foreign and defence policy debate internationally and in Australia'.

Coral's work and spirit is marvellously captured in the tribute to her long and rich life by Robert O'NeillMinh Bui Jones does a fine job of evoking the calm confidence Coral projected in her magisterial musings on the Hobbesian world of international relations: 'She brought an Antipodean temperament and perspective to the great questions of our time; she was our George Kennan in thick glasses, blue floral dress, white sneakers and a string of pearls.' Exactly right.

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These brought to mind the tribute penned by former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, in his 1989 memoir, on Australia's production of academic experts on defence: 'From the middle '50s Australia has contributed far more to international understanding of defence problems than any country of similar size. The reputation of people like Hedley Bull, Coral Bell and Larry Martin has been high for two decades on both sides of the Atlantic, and there is now a new generation of comparable stature, such as Des Ball and Andrew Mack. The climate of the Antipodes seems conducive to producing good defence intellectuals and air marshals, as well as great sopranos.'

For those who never had the good fortune to hear Coral 'sing' in a seminar room or at a lectern, she has left you a treat: her legacy is in her writings. Her pen was always elegant and lucid, the very model of what good prose should be. Add to those qualities, Coral's ability to regularly deliver a bolt of Bell lightning: that moment when a writer floors you with a perfectly weighted phrase or a thought that illuminates a whole landscape.

Robert O'Neill offered a couple of examples: Coral's perception that the Korean War was really conducted primarily through negotiation, with a little military pressure applied at key times and in clever ways, rather than the other way around; and her characteristic mot that the NATO alliance is 'always in disarray' (in her book Negotiation From Strength she spoke of the need for NATO to have an 'official myth').

Anyone who wants to understand what drives Australian military doctrine and darkens defence dreams could get much from one Bell sentence on the six months of profound anxiety Canberra lived through from December 1941 (Pearl Harbour) to May 1942 (Battle of the Coral Sea): ‘consciously or unconsciously, that patch of history has to my mind haunted Australian strategic enquiry ever since.’ 

One of the best places to plunge into the Coral corpus is her book Dependent Ally. At just over 200 pages, this easily wins the weight-for-words handicap race as the finest study of Australian foreign policy in dealing with its two great and powerful friends.

Over the 200 years from 1788, Coral wrote, 'dependent' was the right adjective for Australia's role as an ally, both psychologically and strategically, yet those relationships with Britain and the US were 'complex affairs, full of ambivalence'. It was characteristic that she looked beyond the pejoratives implicit in dependence to describe the many advantages Australia won from 'a persistent national addiction to a usually comfortable dependence, a conscious and even sometimes Machiavellian adoption by policy makers of the easiest and least costly way out of assumed strategic dilemmas'.

The trouble with doing quotable quotes from Coral Bell is that she scattered gems through everything she penned. Reaching into the pile of Bell books on my shelf, I pulled out a piece she wrote for Quadrant in March 1996, on The Cold War in Retrospect; a random flick produced this judgement on the benefits the West got from that long confrontation: 'The Cold War actually rather suited the market economies. Their besetting sin is a tendency to run below optimum levels. Cold War costs injected a considerable element of "military Keynesianism" into the relevant economies, so that the '50s and '60s, when such costs were at their highest, appear in retrospect a period of prolonged economic boom, fondly remembered by some elderly persons in this current period of high unemployment (Europe and Australia) or low real wages (the US) as a golden age.'

The piece went on to argue that there might have been no Cold War if Joseph Stalin had died before Franklin Roosevelt, or if Stalin had not been such a psychotic monster. Characteristically, Coral illustrates this with a letter from Josip Tito to Stalin, which had just emerged from the Soviet archives. Her summary was that Tito warned: 'If you do not stop sending thugs to murder me I will send one to you — and there will be no need for more.'

A quick way to dive into the riches of Coral is to download her Lowy paper, The End of the Vasco da Gama Era. Michael Fullilove describes this as still one of the best Lowy papers. It is more than a good read, it has proved influential and her discussion of the need for an Asian Concert of Powers is an argument that will run and run.

Hugh White pointed to Coral's paper as one of the works he found most useful in writing Power Shift on Australia's future caught between Washington and Beijing; an example of the Coral Bell legacy at work: a body of deep thinking and elegant writing that other analysts will build on.

Photo Lowy Institute.

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Graeme Dobell's series on Bob Carr's first six months as foreign minister: Part 1part 2part 3part 4 and part 5.

In the never-ending foreign policy struggle to identify means and ends, to balance commitments with power, personal style doesn't always get the attention it should in explaining how things get done – or fall in a heap. Yet in relations between nations, there are only three big levers to pull or wield: cash, guns or cuddles. The style of a foreign minister is vital to the hugs and can even mediate the fiscal or force dimensions. 

The review Stuart Harris did in 1986 of Australia's overseas representation captured these truths with some elegance, while showing that the lament about the lean state of Oz diplomacy has been going for several decades:

Countries still achieve their international objectives by threat, bribe or persuasion. Australia has limited capacity to bribe and less to threaten. With few natural allies, it needs, therefore, wide ranging and skilled overseas representation, proportionally more than large and powerful countries, to build long and short-term coalitions and alliances and to magnify its bargaining strength on particular issues of importance to it. Australia's capacity to do this is thin and becoming thinner.

With that as context, consider the Bob Carr style notes. The judgment offered by Gough Whitlam is that 'Carr is the first journalist to shine as a Labor politician since John Curtin...Carr's career is a triumph of critical intelligence applied to politics.'

Drawing on that critical intelligence, Carr the politician has spent a lot of time thinking about what Carr the journalist took from his time at the ABC and The Bulletin. He enjoys the media in ways alien to many politicians who can never relax when dealing with the enemy. The dual experience as hack and huckster powered one of the sharpest and funniest assaults on the hacks by a serving politician. This is Carr, in his heyday as NSW Premier, putting the boot into the cream of Oz journalism assembled at dinner in 1998 for the annual Walkley Awards, in a speech entitled Good Evening, Reptiles

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You all look terrific. The hired gear, the dinner suits. A journalist in a hired dinner suit. It's a terrific thing. But reach into the pocket and there's the best man's speech from Kylie and Brett's wedding...What a profession. You wake up, you feel inadequate, you feel anxious, life is passing you by. You go to the desk, pick a victim. Some innocent person doing his job, just pick a victim. Prolific invectives, abuse, all supported by craftily contrived half-quotes, misrepresentations, cunning little non-attributed views of other people, twisted anecdotes. Soon the victim is sprawling in the mud, gasping for air, a career of service destroyed, never to be revived. What an occupation. I mean, not since the SS was dissolved in 1945 has there been such an opening for insensate cruelty.

When Carr reprinted the speech in a book he commented: 'On this night I was frank. This is always a mistake.' The joke line ('always a mistake') is classic; such drollery gets extra kick when Carr delivers it in his best basso profundo. 

In his ability to sell a line, tell a joke or spin an anecdote, Carr noses ahead of Kevin Rudd, Gareth Evans or Alexander Downer, and is well in front of Stephen Smith and Bill Hayden. The voice is a key bit of the weaponry. Carr was fortunate to work for the ABC (on the AM and PM current affair programs from 1969 to 1971) when the voices allowed on air were slowly becoming less Pom and more Oz. The emphasis on BBC-style elocution still lingered when I joined the ABC in 1975 and was told by my boss that my prospects in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation would be limited because I sounded 'too Australian'; the passing of the BBC cringe just got me through.

The broadcasting training is still evident in the way Carr works a script. But his accent and delivery are well within a recognisably Australian range. Alexander Downer, by contrast, worried that his voice style still had lingering elements of his schooling and university in Britain (although it could be merely the Adelaide accent – reference Christopher Pyne for further evidence).

Carr is challenging Andrew Peacock for the title of smoothest Australian foreign minister since Casey (though in the suit-wearing stakes, it is more a contest between Peacock and Stephen Smith). Where Carr could best Peacock is his ability to mention Schleswig-Holstein and sound like he might know what he's talking about. For an extended example, consider the Carr performance at the Lowy Institute. The yarns sparkled; they might not all be new, but feel the gusto. Take it away, Foreign Minister:

I feel intimidated coming to a gathering like this. I think of the story Henry Kissinger's fond of telling – he says he was standing at a reception and a woman came up to him and said, I hear you're a fascinating man. Fascinate me. [Laughter]

George Brown was Foreign Secretary to Harold Wilson and he was very fond of imbibing, and ended up, I think, being retired as Foreign Minister because he was too fond of alcohol. It's said that he was at a reception in Prague on one occasion, probably in the castle, and clutching his drink he swayed across the room to what he thought was a statuesque, very attractive woman, wearing scarlet. And in response to his offer, she said no, I will not dance with you Foreign Secretary. First, I'm not a woman. Second, that is not a waltz they're playing, it is my country's national anthem. And third, I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Prague.

Another Foreign Secretary, Lord Melbourne, when asked to explain the Schleswig-Holstein dispute said he couldn't; he said there are only three people who ever understood it. One of them died, one of them had been committed to a madhouse, and the third was him, and he'd forgotten. I love the cynicism of 19th century politics, especially that captured by Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg – the Russians, fulfilling their role as the gendarme of Europe, had intervened in Austro-Hungary to help the Viennese put down a revolt of the Hungarian nobles, and when asked if he thought Austria would be grateful to the Russians, Prince Felix said we shall astonish the world by our ingratitude...

And a meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in Marlborough House in April – I was just enjoying the sunshine in the garden as the meeting was convening – and the Foreign Minister of Tanzania came up and introduced himself to me, Bernard Membe. And quick as a flash he said your country means a lot to us, he said, you built a bridge for us and it's helped farmers get from their village to the fields and increased their productivity enormously. And it's done one other thing as well. It stopped kids being taken by crocodiles...

In mid June, in Istanbul, I was honoured to lend our name to the fourth ministerial meeting of the Non Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative. Now I know when I talk about nuclear disarmament there are people here who are going to think about the story of a man who was told to wait on the walls of a Jewish city in the Holy Land and wait for the coming of the millennium. When asked what he thought of his job he said from some standpoints it could be considered boring, but consider, the work is steady!

Mark this the performance of an Australian foreign minister hugely enjoying his dream job. The technique is that of a hard-headed Labor pol who, as Hamish McDonald wrote, can be 'very pragmatic, even ruthless' in pursuit of Australian and government interests. The style is liberal and the delivery polished, but the policy instincts are tougher.

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Can you name China's best regional friends in the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific? Here's a list that has just been expressed by Beijing: Iran, Sri Lanka, Burma and Fiji.

The list is drawn from the hosts for the just-completed international lap-of-honour tour by Wu Bangguo, officially the second most senior official in the Communist Party and China's top legislator as Chairman of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress.

Ponder the list for a moment and see how China might be puzzled, even frustrated, that its growing power is not always reflected in the eminence of its most intimate regional relationships. No wonder Beijing sometimes frets and fumes that the international system is not Sino-friendly. These are the best mates China can muster?

Note the list does not necessarily express regional importance. The word 'best' is used in the sense of the safest and most accommodating friend. If that list expresses China's steadiest and surest friends then it records an unpalatable truth. For Beijing, its close regional mates tend to be pariahs or, at best, middle powers.

On that roll, Iran, Burma and Fiji each comes with its own distinct pariah problems; but one reason among many that China has high comfort levels with each of these nations is precisely because of the various issues of pariahdom. China is the politest of friends which never, ever utters any public criticism.

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Seventy-one-year-old Wu is a leading light of the fourth generation of Party leaders who stepped up to power in 2002. At the 18th Party Congress next month, he and most of the other engineer-technocrats of the fourth generation face the transition from being a Big Cheese to just an Old Cheese, making way for the fifth generation New Cheeses.

In preparing an international tour for someone of Wu's standing, the key consideration is that the places he visits must be significant but also safe. The no-surprises necessity means he goes to the countries Beijing sees as its best friends – nations that have reasons to embrace China and pay due respect to its interests and prerogatives.

Such thinking is not just a China characteristic. The safety syndrome was equally on display when Mitt Romney went traveling recently to buff his international image by touching down in Britain, Poland and Israel. Here, too, was a best friend tour. Britain and Israel easily tick those regional top mate boxes. Along with the Polish vote at home, perhaps Poland got in because Romney has an unusual fixation on the challenge posed by Russia. The fact that the Romney visit to three US mates will be best remembered for some supposed gaffes merely shows that US presidential candidates have to do more unscripted stuff than the elite of the Chinese Communist Party. 

Follow Wu's footsteps to see the tensions as well as the advantages China has in getting close to pariahs and middle powers. In theory, Iran, as the first leg, seems a risky choice. But issues of risk would only arise if Wu was trying to do something more than touch base with a regional mate. All he had to do was stick rigidly to the nuclear script: dialogue and cooperation are the right way to solve the problem, instead of continuous sanctions and pressure.

The realist translation of Wu's conversation with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have read: you keep pumping that oil, old chum, and we'll keep doing what we can for you on the Security Council.

The next stop, Burma, shows the flaw in making a pariah your top regional relationship. When the pariah status starts to slip, other options open. Eighteen months into the quiet revolution, Burma can happily send its president and its greatest dissident off to an equally warm welcome in the US. Burma might even be prepared to share with Cambodia the title of China's closest mate in Southeast Asia. Certainly, Phnom Penh seemed to be bidding for that status with the ASEAN communiqué controversy in July. For Burma, one great argument for reform is the chance to expand the range of potential friends and escape that invidious pairing with North Korea as China's closest allies in Asia.

Then Wu was on to Sri Lanka to sign 16 agreements and burnish what is becoming a wonderful friendship. Sri Lanka easily beats Pakistan into the top spot as the regional mate because China, just like the US, is all too aware of the unknowable downsides involved in anything but a cautious embrace of Pakistan. Sri Lanka is happy to tweak New Delhi by leaning towards a Beijing which is now its biggest bilateral aid donor. If you want a 'string of pearls' in the Indian Ocean, then Sri Lanka is a gem of a pal.

Having ticked the boxes in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and South Asia, the final leg was Fiji, which Wu described as 'a shining pearl in the South Pacific Ocean.' Was that shining pearl or string of pearls? By the fourth leg of grand tour, the metaphors can start to recur. As can the reality that where you choose to go on such a tour says something about the available choices as well as the actual strength of the friendship expressed by the visit.

Photo by Flickr user gfpeck.

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A continuing look at the work of Australia's Foreign Minister. If you missed the start of this series here are links to parts 123 and 4.

One area where Bob Carr's role as the non-Rudd has proved invaluable for the Gillard Government is in the handling of the aid budget. 

As prime minister and foreign minister, Rudd presided over an unprecedented surge in Australia's aid budget. Carr is to preside over the cresting of the surge. In the May Federal Budget, to help deliver a surplus, the growth in the rate of aid spending took a hit to produce a saving of nearly $3 billion over the forward estimates along with the savaging of defence spending.

Unlike the public fuss over defence, the aid lobby has not managed to eat at the Government; that says as much about the different constituencies involved as it does about Carr's skills in soothing aid sensibilities. 

On the evidence of this year's budget and current economic trends, it's likely that aid will keep on giving to ensure a budget surplus next year, which means Australia's march towards spending 0.5% of gross national income on aid has slowed and is set to slow further. 

For a politician of Bob Carr's experience, the argument is simple doorstop fodder. Writing mock Carr answers is a bit like doing mock Whitlam: you just summon the sound of the voice and pick up the emphasis rhythm. The answer would go something like this:

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The mining boom is slowing, so our aid boom has to adjust, but our commitment is as strong as ever...we are still a proud and extremely generous country...We are, far and away, the biggest donor in the Pacific and our aid to Africa has quadrupled in the last five years...To give just one example in our neighbourhood, in Solomon Islands we've helped with 45 bridges, 90 minor crossings, wharves as well...As I said in Parliament in May, over the last four years our aid around the world has helped more than 2.2 million boys and girls enroll in school; provided 2.2 million people with access to safe drinking water; and two million people with better sanitation services across Asia, Africa and the Pacific. Australians should be proud!

It is a simple rule of the game. When questioned about the size or direction of any program, first boast of the commitment then point to the achievements and quickly starting running out examples. It's what state premiers do every day and plenty of foreign ministers know the technique.

On his first trip as foreign minister in 2010, Rudd declared, 'I am the Australian government – when it comes to AusAID.'

Carr, too, is lord of AusAID, but he is quite willing to see AusAID do its bit for the broader aims of the Australian Government. The Foreign Minister will boast about the $5.2 billion annual aid budget rather than die in a ditch over how quickly that spending is going to increase. If you're not talking defence, $5 billion a year is a lot of money in most people's language, and Senator Bob has plenty of ability in speaking exactly that language.

The Foreign Minister started his May aid speech with the words, 'I am pleased to advise that the Government will maintain its commitment to increase Australia's aid program.' The key word is 'maintain' – the rate of maintenance is subject to all sorts of fine tuning. Indeed, 'maintain' is actually a good word to describe what the Foreign Minister has achieved in his first six months in the job. He walked into a fiendishly complicated area after seven years away from politics and has maintained course with nary a wobble.  
 
Photo by Flickr user United Nations.

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Part 1part 2 and part 3 of Graeme Dobell's series on Bob Carr's first six months as foreign minister.

Bob Carr brought to Foreign Affairs a vast administrative experience, a lifetime in politics, and a great intellectual store of history lessons drawn from a prodigious appetite for books. What he didn't have was much experience of how to do the job. Carr had deep interest in the world of foreign affairs but he was not of that world.

Stepping fresh on the field, Carr has drawn widely on the collective foreign policy memory of Australia's political elite. As a man with ample confidence in his own ability, Carr has sought guidance to crystalise his instincts and get hints about the mirages and minefields. He reached to the other side of politics to John Howard and Malcolm Fraser, and has had a couple of discussions with Australia's longest serving foreign minister, Alexander Downer. 

Carr talks regularly to Gareth Evans, and he has never had to ask too hard to hear the views of Paul Keating. The normal constant contact with Australia's ambassador in Washington is taken to another level by the fact that the holder of that post is Kim Beazley. Carr's obsession with the US is nearly matched by Beazley. And Beazley can out-obsess Carr when it comes to the alliance. 

Along with all these, Carr has been talking to Kevin Rudd. The view seems to be that the too-and-fro between Carr and Rudd has been productive, even amiable. Carr is about the only person in this Cabinet without a complicated Rudd history, so the previous minister and the new occupant can talk policy, even people, without too many under-currents. 

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Carr has changed the tone inside Foreign Affairs. Rudd knew exactly what he wanted from DFAT and drove it hard. Carr is nearly as ambitious as his predecessor but has obviously been far more open to the DFAT perspective. 

Unlike Rudd, Carr started with more sense of what he didn't know. Six months in, the blizzard of briefing papers has abated and just as Carr rode over DFAT's preferences for his personal staff, the new foreign minister has started to demonstrate his ability to push the department as well as lean on it. 

Carr's reaction to Libya's arrest of the Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor was a case of the minister shrugging aside the usual cautions offered by DFAT and following his instincts. The Carr journey to Tripoli was truly a flight into the unknown carrying all sorts of risks. It was the action of a man determined to embrace the ride, however long it lasts, and not to miss anything by worrying too much about the potential miseries. When Taylor was quickly released, Carr got some credit for being willing to risk his own credit.

Carr's first achievement was what he solved or made possible merely by taking the job. The new foreign minister immediately changed the way foreign policy had been operating and was reported by the media, and Carr is able to pursue what is always a foreign minister's most important diplomatic relationship, that with the prime minister. For the first time in a while, the foreign minister has a 'normal' relationship both with his department and the prime minister.

The life of an Australian foreign minister is lived on the road and Carr has been flying hard and far. It has not taken him long to get to the stage all foreign ministers quickly reach of asking about the priority and necessity of some of the travel schedule. Senator Bob, though, is proving again the political utility of having a foreign minister who sits in the upper house. He does not have to worry about holding his seat the way they do in the House of Representatives. John Howard demonstrated in 2007 that even prime ministers can lose a lower house seat, while Alexander Downer sailed towards disaster in the 1998 election when a Democrat candidate went within 1.7% of stripping the foreign minister of his safe seat.

As for the biggest question facing Australia this decade —the balance between the alliance with the US and the economic dependence on China — Carr has the opportunity to step beyond his American affections to embrace China. As a retired premier and private citizen, Bob Carr blogged on the eve of the Obama visit last November, saying Australia did not have to go all the way with the US of A: 'Tell the president politely we are not signing up to a mindless anti-China campaign. The alliance does not require it'. And then there was this from Bob the Blogger in December:

When did we decide to favour America's most mistaken instincts? Do we talk down their paranoia and sabre-rattling when our leaders talk? Do we have as our goal a peaceful accommodation between the aspirations of China and the national interests of the US? Why did we allow the announcement about Marines rotating in the Northern Territory to be made in association with the US President's strange speech attacking China? Who makes these foreign policy decisions and what discussion is there?

Back as a public man, Bob Carr knows precisely the answer to that last question, and in much more diplomatic tones he has been treading gently through that agenda. From those starting points, Carr in office has sounded positively John-Howard-like in his repeated insistence that Australia does not have to choose between the US and China.
 
 In the South Pacific, Carr's status as the non-Rudd means he carries less baggage in dealing with Fiji. With none of the bruises from past clashes with Suva's supremo, Carr can focus on the best means to edge the Pacific Islands Forum towards an accommodation with the military regime and help as much as possible to get an open election in 2014.
 
If Australia wins a US Security Council seat in next month's vote, a vast ministerial agenda for 2013-14 will land in the Carr in-tray. He is as ready as he will ever be.

Photo courtesy of DFAT.

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Labor is being burnt by Defence as it burns through Defence secretaries.

With the abrupt departure of Duncan Lewis (pictured) next month, Labor is on to its fourth Defence secretary since taking office in 2007. An average of about one a year is a lousy look. If Stephen Smith had managed to bail from Defence and head back to Foreign Affairs when caucus again beheaded Kevin Rudd in February, then Labor would be on its fourth defence minister.

Losing this number of secretaries from Defence is far more than misfortune, as Lady Bracknell would say, and Labor is shifting into political territory well beyond carelessness.

Canberra will note the way news of the Lewis departure broke; it certainly wasn't in a way that Labor would have wanted. Geoff Barker scored the scoop, reporting that Lewis was close to resigning amid 'mounting turmoil over current and planned funding cuts.' A while ago in print I described Geoff Barker as a 'distinguished journalist'. He protested that if this idea took hold, he'd have to start shaving more regularly. Let's force him to wear a tie by dubbing him eminent.

Most people who follow Defence would listen carefully to the Barker interpretation that the secretary was ready to resign because of the tensions between the ambitious equipment program of the 2009 Defence White Paper and the budget-cutting realities confronting next year's new White Paper: 'What the government is prepared to spend has remained so uncertain that Mr Lewis may have decided that his job was impossible.'

The Barker yarn was too accurate for anything but action. Thus, the Prime Minister put out a hastily constructed press release that starts with the Lewis departure and takes until the fifth paragraph to announce that Dennis Richardson will shift across from head of Foreign Affairs and Trade to become the new secretary of Defence. At least if Stephen Smith could not get back to Foreign Affairs, he can get someone he knows to come across from Foreign. 

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Sending Lewis to be ambassador in Brussels means the Government can claim that the Defence secretary did not resign in disgust. Plus, giving him another job means Lewis cannot let off any verbal fireworks. In terms of sturm und drang, however, the haste and manner of his departure reveals much of what needs to be said.

Canberra will go back and re-read as a valedictory the highly interesting speech Lewis delivered last month. Entitled Talking dollars and strategy: the challenging link in defence planning, that effort might have just brought relations with the Defence Minister towards the boil.

The speech started by talking about the Defence secretary who set the gold standard, Sir Arthur Tange. Lewis recalled the Tange lambasting of the military services which became known as the 'Tange Harangue'; drawing inspiration from that title, his speech will enter history as the 'Lewis Lament'.

The Tange injunction that you can't talk defence without talking dollars was at the centre of the Lewis challenge to his political masters: 'Sir Arthur's maxim about matching dollars to strategy must perpetually ring in our ears. Our aspirations must match our projected budget and resource allocations.'

Lewis noted that Defence has 'reprioritised' $8 billion – including $5.5 billion to put the federal budget into surplus – out of a projected appropriation of $110 billion. He described this position as 'hard but manageable', while concluding that 'our aspirations may not easily match the available funding.' The gap between aspirations and cash is looking chasm-like.

To track the tensions between Labor and Defence, go back through the list of the recently departed secretaries. Bear in mind that this is not just a Labor phenomenon. Defence secretaries today serve at the Minister's pleasure and depart rapidly if it so pleases. The Coalition set the rules by sacking Paul Barratt as Defence secretary back in 1999. In Barratt's wrongful dismissal case the courts ruled that a minister has the right to sack a secretary on almost any grounds: poor choice of ties, bad haircut, whatever can be said to be 'prejudicial to the effective and efficient administration of the Department of Defence.'

The first Defence secretary to get pushed by Labor was Nick Warner in 2009, dispatched to run ASIS. Warner was a good man in the wrong place at a dreadful moment. He paid the price for being in the seat when Labor was very sore at Defence over the forced departure of
Joel Fitzgibbon as Minister. The revisionist view out of Russell is that the leaks against Fitzgibbon were coming as much from Labor as from within Defence. While never discounting the level of bastardry towards each other to be found in Labor ranks, Fitzgibbon's distrust of Defence still burns

Labor tried to get on top of the money and management problems at Defence by shifting Dr Ian Watt from Finance. Watt certainly didn't fail (moving on to head the Prime Minister's Department is the biggest promotion the bureaucracy offers) but he couldn't change much in two years.

The promotion of Duncan Lewis to secretary from his post as national security adviser to the PM was another example of the John Howard rule: anyone who serves the PM as a senior adviser is extremely well placed to get the nod to head a department. Giving Lewis Defence was a mark of Gillard's confidence and may also have had a touch of sending in a former poacher to be the gamekeeper.

Making a former major-general the top civilian at Russell ensured the secretary would not be easily blinded by military bulldust. Equally, as it has turned out, the departing secretary had no illusions about the tensions between policy bulldust and budget baloney.  

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

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Part 1 and part 2 of Graeme Dobell's series on Bob Carr's first six months as foreign minister.

As Bob Carr prepared to ascend to his dream job, he consulted Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Dennis Richardson on the vistas and the visions about to open up.

The travel schedule the Secretary outlined was embraced as a glorious gift. In just over two years in the job, the just beheaded foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, had gone to nearly 60 countries in 27 international trips. Carr happily announced that his caravan would not slacken the pace.

Always there to help, Richardson then moved to the issue of personal staff for the new minister's office in the executive wing of parliament. No problem, according to the Secretary. The department had already penciled in people to do all the jobs in Carr's personal office bar one – they could all be out of the department and up to the desks in Carr's new office in a jiffy. In the rosy glow of the moment, about-to-be Senator Bob agreed that this was also great. Staffing fixed, the discussion happily shifted to other things.

As it turned out, the personal staff appointments didn't go quite to the DFAT playbook. This was an intriguing moment in the eternal struggle to see whether the department runs the minister or the minister rules the department. In this, the personal staff – the minders – are crucial. 

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The biggest institutional change made possible by the shift from the old parliament house in 1988 was the significant growth in ministerial staff numbers. As we moved into the new parliament, I mistakenly thought that the Senate committee system would be the great beneficiary of all that new space and the glorious suite of new committee rooms.

Alas, the committee system has not grown much muscle. The executive keeps the committees on a tight budget and staff numbers are even tighter. The Australian committee system is but the merest shadow of the US, both in power and people. Lack of staff limits the Australian committee system – even the estimates process. The discipline of party politics does the rest. 

The growth industry in the new parliament building was the avalanche of 400 minder jobs serving the princely court that sprung up in the executive wing. Physically, the executive sits at the rear of the parliament, but politically it drives the place. Ministers now had lots of new office space to utilise their power, using people in their own personal offices. This was the Oz version of the West Wing. 

In the old parliament, there was no room for more than a handful of people in the cramped ministerial offices; the line back to the departments was clear, direct and often dominant. In today's West Wing, the lines to the department are just as direct, but the power equation has shifted markedly. In the tussle to run the department, not be run by it, the minders matter. 

Carr knew much of this from setting the record as NSW's longest continuous serving premier. As premier, he once talked about the vital need to impose discipline, to get 'a snappy, no-nonsense, oversight of the whole sprawling apparatus.' In the DFAT scheme of things, there was one vacant spot in the office for Carr to bring with him from Sydney: Graham Wedderburn, his former chief-of-staff in the Premier's office. Wedderburn duly came; that's where the struggle began.

Wedderburn became one of two senior advisers in the office. The other senior adviser, the foreign affairs guru Dr Carl Ungerer, came into the office from four years heading the national security program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He previously served as foreign policy adviser to Simon Crean when he was opposition leader.

This was not quite the lineup DFAT imagined for its new minister. But in West Wing terms, it is a strong mix of policy punch and political savvy. Carr's office is now about half people from DFAT and half from the foreign policy world but not directly from the department’s orbit. In the terms defined by Carr, he is indeed getting 'snappy, no-nonsense, oversight'. The next column will look at how he is driving the caravan.

Photo by Flickr user 350.org.

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Graeme Dobell's series on Bob Carr's first six months as foreign minister starts here.

Bob Carr's threat of sanctions against PNG if it dared to delay the scheduled election was an important moment in the education of Bob.

Not the least problem with Carr's short-lived thought balloon in his first days as foreign minister, as it was explained by his new department, was the reality that Australia would have a lot of trouble getting the rest of the South Pacific to embrace any action against PNG. 

To follow that thought, come back down the time tunnel to the day after Carr had been sworn in, his first full day as foreign minister. What was virtually Carr's maiden interview was with that old-Labor-mate-turned-TV-interviewer Graham Richardson. Everything was so new the transcript never got posted on the DFAT website; the maiden effort was not kept for posterity because its sentiments were so quickly shredded.

Surveying the array of issues about to confront the new minister, Richardson asked about the speculation then coming out of Port Moresby of some delay in PNG's scheduled election. Carr replied that any delay in the constitutionally-decreed timing of the PNG poll would be a 'shocking model' in the Pacific and Australia would have to respond (see 6:12 above): 'We'd be in a position of having to consider sanctions. So I take this opportunity to urge the government to see that those elections take place, keeping Papua New Guinea in the cycle of five-yearly elections.'

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In using the word 'sanctions', Carr stepped well beyond gaffe to enter blunder territory. The Kinsley definition of a gaffe is when a politician blurts out 'some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say.' So this wasn't a gaffe, it was wrong in the sense that Carr was musing out loud about something Australia probably couldn't get done. This was a mistake, not a mis-statement.

Carr was working from the obvious truth that Australia has deep and abiding interests in PNG. But by talking about sanctions he was fast-forwarding towards a policy approach that would isolate Australia, not PNG, in the Pacific Islands Forum. It took the Forum a long time to expel Fiji; the coup was in December, 2006, the Forum final expelled Fiji in May 2009. Sanctions against PNG for delaying an election would be an even harder ask.

If the debate had actually happened, then as with Fiji and the RAMSI intervention in Solomon Islands, Australia would invoke the Forum's Biketawa Declaration, which stresses the need to uphold democratic processes and institutions. The Declaration sets out how the Forum will creep towards sanctions by explicitly setting out some dozen steps available to the Forum chairman in responding to any 'crisis' in a member country, building from a simple statement of concern through a Ministerial Action Group towards Third party mediation or a special summit.

All that would probably fall at the first hurdle because PNG saw no 'crisis'. The PNG parliament did vote in favour of delaying the election if the government decreed it necessary and that vote, as much as anything, was a giant raspberry aimed at Senator Bob. 

Having given Australia a parliamentary 'up yours', Port Moresby then went ahead and held the election on time. Problem solved before it became a problem. Senator Car learnt a few things from that first big mistake on the first full day on the job. The next column will look at how that gig has unfolded.

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