The Global Times

Editor's Note:

Kevin Rudd's recent resignation as Australia's foreign minister failed to produce the return to the job of prime minister he wanted, after he suffered a landslide defeat in Labor's leadership ballot Monday. But why is Rudd still trying, two years after being ousted by current Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilliard, and will this political drama affect Australia's relations with China and the US? Global Times (GT) reporter Gao Lei talked to David Lowe (Lowe), a member of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Editorial Advisory Board and director of the Alfred Deakin Research Institute at Deakin University, and Tom Switzer (Switzer), media commentator, editor of Spectator Australia and a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, on these issues.

GT: What motivated Rudd to try this move, even at the cost of losing his portfolio?

Lowe: The Rudd supporters and the Gillard supporters within the Party have been locked in struggle for some time, and the heat has been rising. It seems that the escalation in tensions had come to a climax — both sides were finding it hard to work.

And, with Gillard's popularity with voters at a low tide, the Rudd group decided that this was the time to take off the gloves and issue a challenge. It would also seem that the Gillard camp was intent on bringing the contest out into the open - to force the issue while the majority of Labor members could be counted on to support Gillard.

Switzer: Rudd has never gotten over the fact that his Labor party colleagues rejected him in June 2010. He wanted to become leader again because he feels that he was unjustly treated.

He will stay in the parliament as a way of getting back to the top job. He wants to become prime minister again and he's not going to spend the rest of his political career on the backbenches.

All the available public polling evidence indicates that he is the most popular political figure in the country. But I don't believe that polling is very accurate. It's just the sympathy for him as he was so brutally knifed in the back nearly two years ago.

But the sympathy can quickly disappear if he becomes prime minister again. He will have a very divided and dysfunctional cabinet, because lots of people don't like his guts.

GT: Will the new foreign minister alter the current Sino-Australian and Australia-US relationships? Will Australia become closer to the US with the Putonghua speaking Rudd gone?

Lowe: There is little evidence to suggest the Putonghua speaking Rudd was an agent of major change in Sino-Australian relations. In the context of the "safe pair of hands" approach that I think Gillard will take, I would not expect to see major developments in Sino-Australian or US-Australian relations over the next year, since foreign policy is a not a field in which Gillard will gain votes at home.

Some very important questions relate to how Australia will manage its relations with these two great powers, especially if tension between the two rises; but I would not expect major initiatives in this regard.

Switzer: The Gillard government has made a decision to support and enhance military cooperation with the US. It's bipartisan by the way since the Opposition also supported the talks between Gillard and US President Barack Obama on the plan to raise the number of US marine forces in Australia.

I myself am skeptical of it, but I don't think it will change in Canberra in the course of the next 10 to 20 years. To be capable of challenging it, you will need a very forceful person to challenge the conventional wisdom.

But since China is now Australia's biggest trading partner and given the relationship is expanding, I believe Australia, rather than giving unconditional and unqualified support to Washington, should try to adopt the new situation of riding two horses simultaneously.

GT: News reports from Australia say that five senior ministers of Julia Gillard's cabinet believe that she is not the best option for the next election. But reports also state that Gillard will start a wider cabinet reshuffle before the election. Will this cause new leadership dramas in the future?

Switzer: It's always dangerous making predictions so far out before the election and I'm always cautious about making bold predictions. But I do think in the short term Gillard's hand has been strengthened as a result of this week's events.

However, I think that her authority and credibility are suffering due to this open wound. And more than a few of her supporters publicly acknowledge that she's among the walking dead. They know they are heading for disaster under her leadership unless they can make a change quickly.

So what I suspect will happen is that if in six months the polls are still very bad, there is more leadership rumbling, and Rudd is still agitating, the Labor party will take the hit by switching their support from Julia Gillard to a third candidate. But they will not go back to Rudd.

Lowe: The Labor Party has a long history of very public brawls that do not necessarily translate into electoral disaster. The cabinet ministers who supported Rudd will need to be treated fairly, and we are hearing a lot about healing at the moment.

Although there is public outrage and despair at Labor behavior, two important factors are being ignored.

The first is that both sides are very unstable in relation to leadership at present. Second, the next federal election is not for a long time - next year - and a lot can change between now and then.

As supporters of the government point out, its reform agenda is delivering results in the form of strong legislation, and the Australian economy is the envy of many in the midst of protracted global financial gloom.

GT: Who will become Australia's next foreign minister? Simon Crean, Stephen Smith and Craig Emerson are all believed to be suitable replacements to Rudd, but who do you think is more fitted for the role?

Lowe: We may well see a new face as foreign minister. Stephen Smith, who has held the reins before, might re-emerge as a safe choice, but this is not necessarily the case. It might even be that one of the Rudd-backers, such as Chris Bowen, immigration minister, takes over.

What Gillard needs in this portfolio is a safe pair of hands rather than someone bent on spectacular reform. As much as some might want to see this as an opportunity for foreign affairs to continue to host a high-profile, ambitious minister, the reality is that votes don't flow from this portfolio. Gillard needs to appoint her best, most trusted ministers in domestic portfolios and plan to hammer home key messages about responsible government and tackling big challenges at home, as a plan for re-election next year.

Switzer: Emerson is the trade minister and acting foreign minister. Crean is the former trade minister. And Stephen Smith is the former foreign minister before he became the defense minister when Gillard became prime minister. These are the three main candidates to fill the role and I believe they are all capable and are respectable choices.

While I previously said in another interview that Stephen Smith is a more suitable choice since he was the foreign minister, the problem is you will have to fill the vacancy for the defense portfolio. Defense is a very hard bureaucracy to run because it has its own interests.