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All politics is local politics: Kevin Rudd and the UN

'All politics is local', goes the famous saying. The recent refusal by the Turnbull Government to endorse Kevin Rudd for the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations stands testament to this phrase. Despite Rudd's extensive foreign policy background, he was unable to escape the lingering criticism that continues to surround his time in parliament as part of the notorious Rudd-Gillard era. The decision is both a shame and an opportunity. On the one hand, it’s a shame that the government lacks confidence in arguably our most senior diplomat's ability to lead the UN. On the other hand, it also highlights how much more work Australia has to do in order to field top candidates for multilateral and international organisations.

There is no doubt that Rudd has the experience and background required of a candidate with a serious chance for the Secretary-General position. Indeed, some have suggested that Rudd has put more effort into his campaign for Secretary-General than virtually all of the other candidates. As a former prime minister, foreign minister and Senior Fellow for Government at Harvard University, Rudd has a history of engagement with high profile international institutions. He is currently Co-Chair of the International Peace Institute and the Asia Society Policy Institute, as well as heading the Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM) for the United Nations. It is also understood that Rudd had the quiet support of both President Francois Hollande in France and Xi Jinping in China. Also important is his extensive background vis-à-vis China. Fluent in Mandarin, he is considered a competent and well-respected Sinophile in global affairs.

Not long after Turnbull's decision was made public, the benefits of having an Australian leader of the UN were made clear in a statement by Rudd himself, in which he highlighted that:

'It would have reflected well on what our nation can offer to the world—as a middle power with relationships across the world, including the developing world, smaller states, the Commonwealth, our Pacific Island friends and of course our partners in Asia'.

And yet, despite all of his experience and the stated benefits of having an Australian in the role, there were serious concerns that Rudd's professional and personal demeanour rendered him an inappropriate candidate unworthy of his country’s nomination. Personal outbursts and continuing claims of Rudd being a bully, such as those made recently by the former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, blemished his polished foreign policy record.

A number of Labor heavyweights have also been outspoken in their criticism of Rudd. This is particularly surprising considering Labor's strong sense of 'ownership over UN history'. Former Ambassador to the United States and former ALP leader Kim Beazley, former MP and musician Peter Garrett and former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally have all voiced their opposition to nominating Rudd for the role. Keneally's comments were particularly notable. She said that Rudd was a 'psychopathic narcissist', and that she could think of '12 Australians...who would be a better Secretary-General'—her pet Labrador among them. Rudd's decision to release specific components of his private correspondence with Turnbull after he was denied the endorsement seemingly reveals more about his own supposed vindictive personality traits than they do about Turnbull's party room divisions.

Sitting quietly in the background of all this drama is the former New Zealand Labour prime minister, Helen Clarke, who has been enthusiastically backed by the current Prime Minister John Key, who's a member of New Zealand's conservative National Party. Although she’s far from guaranteed the position (due to New Zealand's continued frosty relations with the United States over nuclear weapons), she could be a potential compromise candidate for the permanent five nations of the UN Security Council.

There's a glimmer of (unlikely) hope for Rudd. It has been suggested by previous Australian Ambassador to China under Rudd and Gillard, Dr Geoff Raby, that Hillary Clinton may favour Rudd as an acceptable candidate. Despite the government's refusal to back Rudd, Clinton may decide to push for his nomination. Although, this would be a very left-of-field decision. Clinton and Rudd do share similar foreign policy positions, however, and have maintained friendly relations over their years in foreign policy. Of course, this is all dependent on a wide variety of factors, not least of which is Clinton winning the US election.

With the UN under Ban Ki-Moon struggling with the weight of increasingly complex geopolitical machinations and inaction, now more than ever the UN needs a steadfast hand and a jolt of energetic reform if it is to remain relevant. This requires more than just an extensive resume. It requires a personality of patience and compromise. The decision by the Government and the comments made by key Labor figures are a reminder that strength of character remains an essential factor in Australia's international appointments. In a world of demagoguery and political chaos (which in Australia arguably began with Rudd), it is refreshing to see political elites prioritising these values in a time when we need it most.

Will Flowers Comino is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

Image Credit: United Nations Development Programme (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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