IPA Review Editorial, May 2008

It’s always interesting to see how newly elected leaders respond to stimuli. And Kevin Rudd gave a clear indication of his tolerance for criticism at the beginning of April.

The Prime Minister’s trip abroad had a peculiar schedule. He was to visit China, which had just reemphasised its military control of Tibet. But he was to shun Japan, whose only crime seemed to be that its citizens like dining on whales. Rudd’s implied priorities-that whales are more important than human rights-is sadly indicative of the warped moral calculus of the modern environment movement. And it is worrying that the Australian federal government is taking its diplomatic cues from environmental populism.

This strange diplomatic decision was identified by Tony Parkinson, writing in this edition of the IPA Review. As he writes, ‘any hint Australia is into the business of picking winners, giving undue priority to one over another, would be contrary to the national interest.’

The Institute of Public Affairs’ Executive Director, John Roskam, referring to Parkinson’s upcoming piece, wrote in The Age on March 26 that this contradicted Labor’s election campaign line that the ALP would pursue a gentler, nicer, more loving foreign policy: ‘Australia would do more to uphold international standards of human rights, and we wouldn’t acquiesce so easily to alleged human rights violations committed in the pursuit of the war on terror.’ China’s activities in Tibet, surely, fall under some of those categories. Andrew Bolt in Melbourne’s Herald Sun on the same day, and Greg Sheridan in The Australian on March 27 made similar points.

And so, just a few days later, the Prime Minister announced that he had changed his plans, and was now going to go to Tokyo in June. Parkinson, Roskam, Bolt and Sheridan are excellent writers. Their critiques of Rudd’s initial decision to shun Japan were eloquent and well made. John Roskam’s was particularly good. (He is, after all, my boss).

But: seriously? Australian diplomatic strategy was unable to endure the withering onslaught of four disapproving columnists? Is that really all it takes to change federal policy?

Winston Churchill once said there is no such thing as public opinion – there is only published opinion. But it’s not even as if Rudd was castigated across the board by the commentariat. Other columnists defended Rudd, arguing that China will be a far more important trading partner than Japan over the next few decades. Perhaps this is fair enough-perhaps our relationship with Japan should be sacrificed for the sake of the Labor Party’s green vote.

Kevin Rudd is proud of his diplomatic background. But decisions made as a foreign affairs bureaucrat are very different from the highly public and highly scrutinised diplomatic decisions made as a Prime Minister. Avoiding Japan and flattering China may be great diplomacy-the nuances of high geopolitics are, we are told, a Rudd speciality. But foreign affairs is as much about domestic politics as international diplomacy. As John Kunkel, John Howard’s former speechwriter, reflects in his retrospective of the Howard Project in this issue of the IPA Review, Rudd’s predecessor understood the necessity for foreign policy to be just as democratically minded as domestic affairs. With his Japan stumble, Kevin Rudd may have begun to realise that.

This edition of the IPA Review continues our ‘What Next for Liberalism?’ feature, asking whether it is ever going to be possible for government to be shrunk, considering that no Australian government has ever managed to do so. Sinclair Davidson, Des Moore and Alan Moran look at the strategies for reducing the size of the state and its powers. Christopher Pyne argues that only major reform to the Liberal Party’s approach to selecting candidates and leaders will re-engage the party’s supporters, and John Pyke crunches the numbers to find a startling level of support for the republic amongst those who voted against it nearly ten years ago.

Richard Allsop reveals how the left have managed to convert the sporting field into yet another battlefield for the culture wars. Greg Melleuish looks at why smart people believe stupid things, and Scott Ryan looks behind the health debate to the health providers who are holding back reform. And of course, the usual book reviews, regular columns and cultural snippets that have helped the IPA Review become Australia’s longest running political magazine.