In appointing Kevin Rudd as ambassador to the United States, Anthony Albanese is sending someone with all the qualifications, and more, for what is a highly demanding diplomatic job in extremely uncertain times.
Twice prime minister, and a former foreign minister, Rudd has the special advantage of being a leading authority not just on China but on that country’s leader, when China’s assertiveness is the biggest story in our region. This year he received a doctorate from Oxford for a thesis on the worldview of President Xi Jinping.
Rudd possesses expertise in abundance. But he’ll have to make sure he refits his style to what can be the restraining corset of the job of ambassador, in his case working for political masters who once served as his ministers.
Albanese has always been a supporter but in government, Rudd was a highly divisive figure. His controlling leadership style, micromanagement and temper outbursts were publicly and harshly condemned by various colleagues.
When a reporter, mining the old descriptions, asked Albanese on Tuesday whether he was worried about essentially having a second foreign minister in the US, it was not an entirely unreasonable question.
Rudd will parade his knowledge and opinions with the utmost verbal force to the PM, Foreign Minister Penny Wong, and the bureaucracy.
Wong can be a tough cookie but even she must wonder whether the appointment will come, over the long haul, with challenges.
Some in the Foreign Affairs department will already be reaching for their seat belts.
Rudd went out of his way to say, in the long statement he issued after the announcement, “I will of course comply fully with all DFAT and APS [Australian Public Service] guidelines to ensure any institutional associations I retain are consistent with my obligations as Ambassador.”
In his post parliamentary days, Rudd even divided the Turnbull cabinet, when he sought government backing to run for secretary-general of the United Nations. The cabinet left the decision to Turnbull, who said Rudd wasn’t suited to the role. Rudd reacted with a blistering attack on Turnbull.
But Turnbull tweeted on Tuesday: “I cannot think of any Australian with better connections than Rudd has in the Biden administration or with more influence on geopolitical issues in DC. He is also keenly aware of the external, and internal, threats to US democracy.”
Rudd and Turnbull formed a bromance in their assault on the Murdoch media. Both have been ferocious in their comments. Kevin will have to leave the anti-Murdoch mission to Malcolm now.
Shadow foreign minister Simon Birmingham reacted to Rudd’s appointment with a carefully-worded statement containing a subtle sting.
“The next few years in the Australia–America relationship are as important as any in recent times, as we work together to deliver upon the AUKUS partnership and respond to the strategic challenges of our times,” Birmingham said.
“They will require discipline, sensitivity and drive. AUKUS is essential to our national security interests and will be a most challenging undertaking. That will require the unqualified support and attention of our Ambassador,” he said.
Rudd in 2021 lashed out at the Morrison government’s treatment of France in its forging of the AUKUS agreement, and said that “to go from conventional submarines to nuclear-powered submarines, when this country doesn’t have its own civil nuclear program is a very large leap into the dark”.
Making a political appointment to the US is entirely appropriate. The ambassador in Washington is frequently a former senior politician; that sort of background gives them status and access in the US capital.
The present incumbent, former Liberal minister Arthur Sinodinos, has, from all accounts, won considerable respect. Joe Hockey, Liberal ex-treasurer, got close to the difficult Trump administration, which was needed at the time. Kim Beazley, former Labor minister and former opposition leader, was lavishly praised by both sides of Australian politics for his service in the US.
Recently former Labor minister Stephen Smith has been named for high commissioner to London – another post for which a political appointment is appropriate.
In prospective candidates for the Washington position, Rudd had to be at the top of the list. To have overlooked him would have been both unwise – his experience and abilities should be put to the nation’s use – as well as unfair.
In his statement Rudd pointed out he has lived and worked in the US for most of the past decade, including for the last eight years at the Asia Society in New York, becoming global president in 2020.
“In some ways, my new position will not be dissimilar to the work I have been undertaking at Asia Society to support greater co-operation between the US and the countries of our region.”
It will be interesting to see how the Australian public react. Despite the ups and downs of his political fortunes and his volatile temperament, people liked Rudd and, despite the problems at the time, he would probably have done better than Julia Gillard did at the 2010 election. His restoration to the leadership in 2013 saved seats for Labor, although he couldn’t secure victory.
Albanese also announced Heather Ridout, former head of the Australian Industry Group, will be consul-general in New York, the first woman to hold this position. With her extensive contacts in business and impressive networking skills Ridout, who once served on the Reserve Bank board, is eminently suited.
Albanese’s announcement of the Rudd appointment came at a joint news conference with Wong, before her Beijing talks on Wednesday. Wong was anxious to manage expectations for her groundbreaking visit.
“There has been a lot of speculation in the last 24 hours or more about what will happen. I will say this: the expectation should be that we will have a meeting, and that dialogue itself is essential to stabilising the relationship.
“Many of the hard issues in the relationship will take time to resolve in our interests,” she said.
“In relation to consular cases […] obviously I will be raising consular cases, as I always do, just as I will continue to advocate for the trade impediments to be lifted. Because […] it’s in both countries’ interests to do so.
“I do want to say this, I want to emphasise that Australian business has done an outstanding job in diversifying its markets, and it’s always going to be in our interest to continue to prioritise that diversification.”
As they step onward to an improved Australia-China relationship, Albanese and Wong are very aware of the need to be measured in the messaging, whether telling China Australia won’t compromise on its national interest, or telling Australians achieving tangible outcomes doesn’t happen overnight.