By Tom Switzer
We all know this week marks the one-year anniversary of Kevin Rudd's spectacular downfall. But the former prime minister has chalked up another milestone recently: he is easily the most widely travelled foreign minister in recent memory.
In his first nine months in the foreign affairs portfolio, Rudd eclipsed the number of nations that his two high-flying predecessors Alexander Downer and Stephen Smith visited in their first year. Taken together with his global strutting as prime minister from late 2007 to mid-2010, it's no wonder he's still widely disparaged as "Kevin 747".
It's easy to ridicule Rudd for his eagerness to be part of everything overseas, from his inclusion in a NATO-dominated panel to guide the conflict in Libya (even though Australia is not militarily engaged) to his late-night frolics outside Buckingham Palace on the eve of the royal wedding (conveniently in front of Channel Seven cameras).
But Rudd is not simply behaving like a relentless self-promoter on the world stage. By thinking and acting like a major player in the international arena, he is also reflecting a long-standing Australian penchant for diplomatic busyness and participation that predates Gareth Evans, another frequent-flying foreign minister.
During World War I, the patriotic song went "Australia will be there", with "there" meaning the war's obscure battlefields.
Ever since, being "there" apparently means every global committee, conference, commission and voting lobby in sight, and not simply registering in a photo op, but participating as prominently as possible.
Rudd also reflects another characteristic of Australian politics: the domination of foreign policy by individuals.
Take Billy Hughes: at the Versailles peace accords in 1919, he secured a high-profile presence for Australia at the post-war negotiating table. He even lectured Woodrow Wilson on the perils of decolonising New Guinea, prompting the US president to dismiss the Australian prime minister as "a pestiferous varmint".
Take Robert Menzies: much is often made about his many months in London during World War II, but little is known about his time overseas during what he called the "gravest crisis" since the war, namely the Suez crisis. During 1956, Menzies was away from home for four months, in Washington, London and Cairo. After Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, he insisted Australia enthusiastically back the hawkish British and French over the more cautious Americans. Menzies himself even led a UN coalition to negotiate, unsuccessfully, with the Egyptian dictator.
Take Gough Whitlam: throughout his three-year prime ministership, he was presented as a sort of political John Konrads, setting new records of pace and endurance. In 1973, the journalist Alan Ramsey reflected the conventional wisdom in the press gallery when he admired Whitlam's "rushing kaleidoscope of events, names, places and faces, hotels and airports, sights, sounds, speeches, impressions, each blurring one into the other".
Malcolm Turnbull spoke for many people in November 2008 when he complained that Rudd "makes Gough Whitlam look like a xenophobe". As it happens, Gough spent 65 days of 1973 overseas while the "Prime Tourist" dedicated 71 days of his first year in office to international travel.
Take Bert Evatt: Labor's foreign minister (1941-49) and opposition leader (1951-60). At the San Francisco UN conference in 1945, Evatt set the pace with 200 speeches and the conference record for committee membership. At the Paris Peace Conference a year later, he tabled 400 amendments, only one of which was accepted. Which led an annoyed Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov to remark: "The Australian delegation has almost drowned us in a pile of amendments."
This is Rudd: so many meetings, speeches, interviews, statements, photo ops in such a short
timeframe. Add to this the foreign minister's extremely dominating personality, combined with a formidable will and impressive intellect, and it is clear Rudd follows a long list of Australian statesmen concerned that their nation be paid as much attention as possible in the world.
Sometimes, such excessive activity and zeal make perfectly good sense for a middle power of only 22 million people. Other times it degenerates into mere thrashing around and childish posturing in an attempt to make Australia punch above its weight.
The criticism of Rudd is not that he travels too much; it's that his priorities are wrong. He overwhelmingly favours Europe and the Middle East, yet he dedicates only a brief period of time overseas to Southeast Asia and hardly any to the South Pacific.
It's justified that the Foreign Minister displays so much energy, initiative and assertiveness. But when his agenda goes well beyond matters of direct concern to most Australians, there is a danger that he may overlook serious problems closer to home.
Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of Spectator Australia.