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From Canberra to the world

Nick Bryant | 03:40 UK time, Sunday, 12 September 2010

Lyndon Baines Johnson had a typically lavatorial take on whether he should retain J Edgar Hoover as his director of the FBI. No doubt you have all heard the famous quote on the respective merits of having Hoover inside or outside the tent. In deciding on where to place Kevin Rudd in her new cabinet, Julia Gillard has offered her own variation on that theme: she would like him outside of the country.

Around 80 days after being sacked as prime minister, Kevin Rudd has been given the world as his portfolio. He will serve as foreign affairs minister in the new Gillard government. It comes as no surprise, of course. Julia Gillard repeatedly said during the campaign that she would offer him a front-line post, and Kevin Rudd had made no secret that the job he had in mind was foreign affairs. Moreover, after she enlisted his help midway through the campaign to bolster the Labor party in Queensland, it made him a virtual shoo-in for the post.

The foreign affairs portfolio works for both of them. Rudd was one of Australia's most outward-looking prime ministers, and his penchant for international travel earned him the nickname Kevin 747. He clearly loves diplomatic summitry, and would one day like a job very high up in the United Nations. For Julia Gillard, the travel demands of the new post will mean that Mr Rudd has less time for mischief-making in Canberra, and will be less of a destabilizing figure. It also limits his interaction with other government departments, since he will head up a fairly isolated fiefdom.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd

A Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, who enjoys a very close working relationship with Barack Obama, Mr Rudd certainly has the curriculum vitae. However, although he strengthened Canberra's relations with Washington through his personal chemistry with the new president, he was regularly accused of letting other important relationships fall into a state of disrepair.

Japan, Australia's one-time biggest trading partner, felt neglected by Rudd in the early days of his prime ministership, and then fell out with Canberra over whaling. China did not take kindly to Rudd bringing up the always sensitive issue of Tibet during a speech before university students in Beijing, although Rudd's admirers might regard it as one of the bravest speeches he made. The relationship with India suffered because of what Delhi diplomats thought was a slow governmental response to the student beatings in Melbourne and Sydney. All this raises the question of whether Rudd is the best man to repair and renovate these relationships.

Julia Gillard has yet to deliver a major foreign policy speech, and, other than her strong and longstanding support for Israel, she does not convey the impression that she has given the rest of the world much deep and serious thought. The insularity of the campaign partly reflected the insularity of her political outlook. One of the interesting things to watch will be the extent to which she outsources foreign policy to Mr Rudd. Indeed, managing this tricky relationship might become a test of both their diplomatic skills.


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