Written by: Elizabeth Farrelly
We really need to talk about Kevin. Our choice is between a wildly inexperienced but bumptious male and a wise, experienced female, respected, accomplished, fit-for-purpose. But really, is this even a contest?
I'm not talking Trump v Clinton (although if the cap fits, right?) I'm talking Kevin Rudd v Helen Clark, vying for UN Secretary-General.
Remember what this means. Secretary-General is not some sinecure for time served, some handy side-pocket for a pesky ex-PM. This is the search for the next Yoda. Wanted: Supreme Being, Planet Earth. Of course it's not Australia's decision, but Malcolm Turnbull is expected any moment to announce our nomination (or not) of Kevin Rudd as Candidate 13. Question is, should he?
The question must be asked. Does Rudd really have the gravitas to hold down Secretary-General?
Helen Clark, New Zealand's then-prime minister, right, looks on at Kevin Rudd in 2008. Photo: Bloomberg
Clark has been number three at the UN for seven years. Before that, she was NZ's (best) PM for nine. Rudd is also "over there", gracing the dining rooms and draughty halls of New York with his yet-undeclared campaign. PM for only three years, and then in two parts, bookending Gillard, he is more renowned for back-stabbing and bad-temper than compelling leadership. As a presence on the world stage, Clark towers over him.
If Malcolm had just one act left, one wave-of-the-wand to restore Australia's tattered image as a grown-up nation, it should be this. Transcend national rivalry. Forget the Bledisloe Cup, won by NZ 43 times of 55. Be big. Support Helen Clark for Secretary-General.
The decision must be made well before Ban-Ki Moon retires on December 31. From August, the UN Security Council (always dominated by the five permanent members with veto rights; France, Russia, China, the US and Britain) will ruminate and eventually hand its decision to the General Assembly for ratification. That much is the usual faux-democracy.
But the lead-up process has been, for the first time in 70 years, semi-transparent. There are 12 official candidates – counting Clark but not (yet) Rudd. Half are women, eight are Eastern European, two Latin American/Caribbean and two "Western European and Others". That's us, "others". Australia, NZ etc. Misc.
Already, several live-broadcast debates have let the candidates strut their stuff. Clark's performance in the latest, on Wednesday, won applause – for her humour (quipping that the group should be called "Western European and Orphans"), her insistence that Sec-Gen is not a turn-taking thing, like some dole-out of Olympic lollies, but a "global search for the best talent" and her frank criticism of the UN's human rights and conflict resolution record. It reminded me why Clark is such a standout. She never lets go of principle.
Clark has her critics, of course. But colleagues and staff remember her with immense respect, using phrases like "utterly focused" and "utter integrity."
"Fantastic," said her former Defence Minister Phil Goff of Clark, praising her focus, her "utter integrity," and her grip on "kiwi values," What values? Well, pluralism, feminism, fairness, decency, courtesy, frankness and backbone, for starters.
As a three-term PM she transformed social and cultural attitudes – presiding, not least, over Maoridom becoming cool. That alone is huge. In 1999, before her first election as PM, Clark persuaded the eloquent Maori mayor and former sex-worker Georgina Beyer to contest the right-leaning seat of Wairarapa; becoming NZ's first openly transsexual MP and a much-loved public figure.
In 2001, when Howard was still doing children overboard, Clark's government welcomed 131 people from the Tampa. Without fuss, they accepted hundreds from Australia's festering prisons on Nauru and Manus. Then, unlike Australia's policy of preventing family reunions, worked assiduously to locate and reunite family members.
In 2002, Clark formally apologised to Samoa for injustices committed under NZ rule, and to the LGBTQI community for harm and ill-treatment. In 2003, when the Blair-Bush team were stamping their war-boots, Clark refused to send troops to Iraq, saying that a Gore presidency in the US would not have invaded. So now, post-Chilcot, when we're all wondering why Howard and the Coalition of the Willing should not be named as war criminals, NZ looks strong and honourable.
She made the unpromising-looking MMP voting system work by forming strong alliances with the Greens and others and, throughout, refused to play the gender card, so transforming the status of women.
As to Rudd? Much of the criticism directed at him is personal – the temper tantrums, the selfies, the narcissism, the tendency to bully staff. This is largely irrelevant to his professional performance, especially since most of the bullying accusations originate with political opponents – in particular Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop.
Gillard's description of the bullying amounts to little more than stepping angrily "into my space", which seems scarcely coup-worthy. And although Bishop told the ABC in 2009 that "bullying behaviour by the Prime Minister … is totally unacceptable" she now, mysteriously, supports Rudd's UN campaign.
So no. It's more about Rudd's accomplishments and the extent to which these demonstrate leadership qualities like wisdom, principle and moral strength.
Rudd began well, coming in on a landslide and within months ratified the Kyoto protocol and offered the Stolen Generations an apology that echoed Keating's. Thereafter, it started to look more like gesture than fact. The Rudd-Swan team is often credited with our weathering the GFC relatively unscathed, but that's more reliably down to the zero debt they inherited from Peter Costello. Rudd's white paper on homelessness (2008) attracted attention, with the PM sleeping rough, but – like his 2020 summit – changed little.
There was an emissions trading scheme that exempted high-emitters, an asylum-seeker policy that rejected more applications than Howard and a promised NBN for which we're still waiting.
So, honey, do we really have to talk about Kevin?
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