Tag Archives: Kevin Rudd

Hugh White’s Sleepwalk to War

Hugh White, Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s unthinking alliance with America (Quarterly Essay 86, 2022)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 87

The title of this Quarterly Essay says it all: Australia’s foreign policy has had us in lockstep with the USA, and we’re heading for an inevitable war with China if the USA continues on its current trajectory and we stay blindly following. The people making key policy decisions, the title implies and indeed the essay states explicitly, are not living in the real world.

Specifically, our governments talk and act as if the USA is an unchallengeable world power both generally and in our region. In reality, China’s GDP is now greater than that of the USA (one of many assertions challenged by correspondents in Nº 87); it is a nuclear power intent on establishing a sphere of influence in the India Pacific; the USA has no compelling reason to challenge that intention, and there’s no way it will go to war, let alone risk a nuclear war, to do so. Australia and the USA should stop pretending they will defend Taiwan should China decide to retake it – which it inevitably will do. We should be working out how reconcile ourselves to living within a Chinese sphere of influence in a multipolar world where the USA and China are only two of several great powers.

Hugh White presents his argument cogently, and when he is dealing with the absurd sabre-rattling of Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison, his thesis looks like sweet reason. Nancy Pelosi’s weirdly provocative visit to Taiwan happened after the essay and its follow-up correspondence were published, making it very timely indeed in retrospect.

As usual, I delayed reading this Quarterly Essay until the next one came out so that I could read it along with whatever responses the series editor (still Chris Feik) chooses to publish. Unusually this time, politicians criticised in the essay have a say. Not Scott Morrison or Peter Dutton – it’s hard to image either of them meeting argument with argument rather than bluster. But Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd turn up to defend their records. They and other correspondents take issue with White’s thesis just about as vigorously as possible within the bounds of civil discourse.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull:

White has strayed into sweeping generalisations and, frankly, ‘alternative facts’ to embellish his argument. I was disappointed that a scholar of his standing would do so.
White’s description of Australian foreign policy is simply wrong

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:

A skilled political operator, White adduces selective facts and little reason in reaching [his] conclusion, but happily smears as ‘unthinking’ anyone who challenges his word as self-appointed prophet of both the anti-American far left and the ‘never upset Beijing’ Rio Tinto far right.

Michael J. Green, formerly the senior Asia policy official on the National Security Council in the White House:

Kudos to Hugh for shaking things up as always. There is urgency, as he notes. There are also many big and hard decisions ahead. But the basic consensus behind current Australian and American grand strategy is founded on a more nuanced and realistic assessment of the international system and the relative balance of power than offered in the polemical pages of Sleepwalk to War.

Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University:

I’ve admired my ANU colleague Professor Hugh White for decades: his singular intellectual style, public profile (such that many mistakenly assume he speaks for Australia), unorthodox career, generous mentorship of next-generation thinkers, sharp good humour, even his zeal. He is a past master of the strategic analysis game. But he insists on playing it just one narrow way – his own, derived from his training in philosophy and winner-takes-all Oxford debating. And, sadly, his new Quarterly Essay maintains the cage.

Not all the correspondents take issue with the essay as sharply as those, but Rory Medcalf’s gibe about Oxford debating rings true when Hugh White emerges bloody but unbowed to reply to correspondents, barely acknowledging the many instances where he allegedly got the facts wrong.

In the end, the discussion hasn’t left me any wiser about Australia’s relationships with the USA and China. My evaluation of Dutton and Morrison’s provocations has been endorsed. My sense that things are complicated has been strengthened. My anxiety about the possibility of nuclear war in my lifetime remains on a low simmer. I’m glad there are people who can think about these issues and are taking about them. I hope cool and wise heads prevail on all sides.

Jennifer Maiden in the Age

In yesterday’s Age, and in the online version of the Sydney Morning Herald, Jennifer Maiden has a new poem, ‘The Reflection’ (scroll down quite a way at that link). In it a re-awakened Kevin Rudd and Dietrich Bonhoeffer chat on a plane as they did in the earlier poem, ‘Deep River’ (you need a sub to the Australian Book Review to make that link work).

The earlier Rudd–Bonhoeffer dialogue took place soon after Rudd’s replacement by Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, and as in many of Maiden’s poems in which politicians converse with their proclaimed models it has a sense of moral jeopardy, sympathy for the one who is in jeopardy, and a respect for the enigma of their humanity. It ends with the observation that Rudd’s ‘strangely stylised’ slang seems to say:

So we’re all self-constructed out of trauma.
Standing here,
I defy you to file me away.’

In ‘The Reflection’, the sympathy and enigma have receded, and the moral jeopardy intensified. Do read it.

We don’t need another Abbott

Yesterday afternoon we went to our first demo responding to Kevin Rudd’s PNG solution to the asylum seeker problem. It was the third such demo organised by Sydney’s Refugee Action Coalition, and the plan evidently is to keep them up on a weekly basis until the policy is dead.

It was a smallish demo, but spirits were high, and speakers assured us that there were millions of people all over the country who shared our opposition to the policy. A young Hazara woman stood out, reading an eloquent account of the sufferings of her people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and, heartbreakingly, Australia; with a postscript on the contribution her refugee family is making to Australian society.

We marched around the block, carrying placards and chanting. The Socialist Alliance and Greens were strongly represented in the placards, but there were also Labor for Asylum Seekers and iamaboatperson.com, and a beautiful patchwork banner for a student women’s collective, as well as any number of individually crafted signs. Some art students handed out crayon and people were chalking slogans on the street and footpath (‘Refugees are welcome’, ‘It’s not illegal to seek asylum’ ‘We’ve boundless plains to share’ etc). The main chant was

Say it loud! Say it clear!
Refugees are welcome here!

Although I think it’s generally a mistake to personalise these things, I liked:

Kevin Rudd’s a racist coward!
We don’t need another Howard!

and propose a variant:

Kevin Rudd’s a racist rabbit!
We don’t need another Abbott!

Given that both major parties are looking for quick political fixes rather than a solution to the problem of desperate people risking their lives in unsafe boats to seek asylum here, and given that both major parties seem to think it’s political suicide to have anything remotely like Australia’s response to the ‘boat people’ who came here from Vietnam in the 1970s, I was thinking it was probably futile to take to the streets about this policy. But something happened to make me think that it may actually be important.

About three quarters of the way around the block, we noticed a deeply unhappy looking man in a grey suit filming the march. As we were about to turn back into George Street, I saw him stop behind a traffic control box and put on an identifying badge. He was fairly obviously a policeman of some sort. A little later I saw him talking in a threatening manner to two young women with chalk in their hands, then approaching another young woman who was writing on the road. He took this young woman aside and was asking her questions, close to a uniformed policeman, filing her answers and filming the ID he evidently asked to see. I approached and asked what was going on. He siad it was a private conversation. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask him why he was filming a private conversation and if he had the young woman’s permission to do that. She told me later that he had said writing on the road constituted malicious damage to public property and that she would be hearing from the police department within three or four days.

From this I deduce that the NSW Police consider these demonstrations to be potentially a serious problem.

I do wonder if a policeman asking someone for their ID while filming them and threatening them with legal action in the middle of a street can by any stretch be called a private conversation. I also wonder if writing on asphalt with crayon can by any stretch be called malicious damage. I have photos of this unpleasant, deeply unhappy looking individual if anyone is reading this and needs a record of his behaviour.

And meanwhile, the protests will continue, every weekend at Sydney Town Hall and I expect all over the country. The Refugee Action Coalition have an excellent web page.

Quarterly Essay 39: China powers on

Hugh White, Quarterly Essay 39: Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing (Black Inc Sept 2010)

As with every Quarterly Essay, I turned first to the back of this issue for correspondence on the previous one. Timing was unusually poignant in this case: QE38, David Marr’s Power Trip, came out just days before its subject Kevin Rudd was ousted from power; the responses to it here were mostly written when the election campaign of Julia (‘the ouster’) Gillard was foundering, and I read them just after hearing that she will be leading a minority government. There are no fireworks in the correspondence: a couple of journalists add corroborating anecdotes about Rudd’s leadership style (David Marr describes these as symptomatic of ‘a new, and welcome, spirit of indiscretion’; I read them as a bit of a pile-on). Kerryn Goldsworthy deftly despatches whole swathes of attack on the essay and dispenses a little relevant information about literary forms while she’s at it. James Boyce corrects and enriches David Marr’s understanding of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his probable significance for Rudd. In responding, David Marr replies almost entirely to criticisms that were made elsewhere: perhaps it would have been polite to give those critics the right of pre-reply here (he quotes Sylvia Lawson and Allison Broinowski and gives them a one-word reply: rubbish).

From David Marr’s Power Trip to Hugh White’s Power Shift. Appropriate as the title would have been for an essay on the recent election, we have to wait for QE40 for George Megalogenis to give us that (Power Brakes?). This one is about something other than personalities and politics as horse race:

Our leaders, and by extension the rest of us, are assuming that Asia will be transformed economically over the next few decades, but remain unchanged strategically and politically. It is an appealing assumption because the past forty years have been among the best times in Australia’s history, and it has been easy to believe that American power would continue indefinitely to keep Asia peaceful and Australia safe. That has been a cardinal mistake.

Perhaps the assumption is also appealing because its obvious knee-jerk alternative is a revival of Yellow Peril rhetoric. Tomorrow When the War Began (John Marsden’s series of YA novels and now a film based on the first book) demonstrates, incidentally, that the complacency Hugh White sets out to prick hasn’t been absolute, but it does give strength to his arm in seeking to get people to think about Australia’s relationship to China rather than explore violent fantasies, however earnestly packaged.

While Kerryn Goldsworthy says, quite correctly, on page 85 that an essay can be ‘an expedition into the unverifiable: memories; theories; hitherto unexplored veins of subject matter or uninhabited point of view’, this one proceeds with the logical clarity (though not the  soul-destroying aridity) of a PowerPoint demonstration. ‘Since 1788,’ he says, stating the obvious but unsettling truth, ‘Australia has always enjoyed a very close and trusting relationship with the world’s strongest power, and we just take that for granted.’ Well, not for much longer – and we need to think about this. The main history of our times, he proposes, may not be in the place that’s getting the most attention:

The day-to-day management of the [US–China] relationship gets a lot of detailed attention, but presidents and other senior figures avoid substantial analysis of America’s long-term intentions towards China. One reason is 9/11. For almost a decade, America’s political leaders have convinced themselves that a small group of fugitives on the run in Pakistan poses a bigger challenge to America’s place in the world than the transformation of the world’s most populous country. Future historians will find that hard to explain.

To be fair to White’s argument, he goes on immediately after this to acknowledge that Barack Obama signalled that the blinkers were coming off after his visit to China in November last year. All the same, Muriel Rukeyser take a bow.

It’s a very interesting essay, which I recommend as an antidote for the personality-preoccupied, narrative-driven writing that accounts for most political commentary in our newspapers these days.

Election clerihews

First, as a reminder of past glories, here’s a version of a clerihew I wrote in November 2007:

Kevin Michael Rudd
may turn out to be a dud
but at least we’ll no longer be showered
with the duplicitous spittle of Howard.

The present Labor Prime Minister (long may she reign) presents a considerably greater challenge to the aspiring clerihewer, I don’t want to wait until election night, so here you are, the best I’ve been able to manage:

Julia Eileen Gillard
could star in a remake of Willard,
not as a rat or their misfit trainer
but the love-interest trying for something saner

And this:

Anthony John Abbott
has a habit
when playing for high stakes
of saying whatever it takes.

Go on, do better.


It’s a long time since the Art-Student and I have been to a Gleebooks event. Tonight we went to a discussion of a book (pic on the left leaves off the first two letters of its name) about Kevin Rudd’s handling of the Australian branch of the Global Financial Crisis. As we arrived the A-S observed that it was a different crowd –  men were wearing ties, and women were coiffed. That plus the fact that Malcolm Turnbull was chairing the discussion should have warned us to sit next to the aisle instead of right against the wall where early exit was virtually impossible.

As Upstairs at Gleebooks was filling to capacity, Malcolm Turnbull took the microphone to do a bit of a warm-up. He asked how many of us knew the original owner of Gleebooks and when only a couple of us raised a hand he said he’d give us a bit of history. After a couple of disparaging hyperboles about Tony Gallagher’s body, he told is that he had been a teacher at Malcolm’s high school, where he had produced King Lear with young Malcolm in the role of Edgar. End of history lesson, beginning of anecdote about young Malcolm getting into a scrape.

The authors of the book, an economist and a political journalist, joined Turnbull on stage. I can’t say that the conversation that followed was very enlightening. We were told, for instance, that the global financial crisis was brought about by government being too much at the centre of the US economy (it was Turnbull the corporate warrior who said that), that Rudd exaggerated the severity of the crisis (that was Turnbull the politician) and that Rudd deliberately downplayed the severity of the crisis (that was the journalist). I suppose the A-S and I had gone there naively hoping for some kind of insight into what had happened to Kevin Rudd’s government. Instead, it was the kind of crowd where every time one of the panel referred to him as the former prime minister they successfully invited widespread sniggering. The book may be interesting and insightful, and there were indications that at least one of the authors had a more nuanced view than Turnbull’s (in short: ‘Rudd did it all wrong, except overseas. and he should have listened to me’). But the evening left a bad taste in the mouth – and to judge by the questions, there were a number of people in the audience who shared out response.

I’m pleased to report that when a woman asked the panel’s response to her sense that Rudd and Co had deliberated talked up the financial crisis and swine flu to scare her, both the authors disagreed, and even Malcolm could tell that truth ought to take precedence over an opportunity to denigrate a political opponent.

David, Kevin, Rage. So?

David Marr, Power Trip: The political journey of Kevin Rudd (Quarterly Essay 38)

In Quarterly Essay 36, Mungo MacCallum explored the miasma of myth and collective emotion that, he argued, accounted for Kevin Rudd’s popularity. Rudd’s recent plummet in the polls suggests that the popularity may actually have been based on more concrete factors, such as his promising stand on global warming, but the essay was a good read nonetheless. Two issues further on, the series once again addresses (I nearly said ‘attacks’) the Rudd phenomenon. David Marr asks not what we see in Rudd, what we hope of him, what he stands for, not centrally whether his leadership is effective or his policies correct, but ‘Who is he?’ It’s a fair enough question. There is something oddly impersonal in his media persona, a sense not so much that he’s hiding something as that he doesn’t know how to show himself. There have been baffling moments, especially his odd, televised disregard for Kristina Keneally.

The question is fair enough, but I’m not sure the answer gets us anywhere much. A cruel short version would be: ‘Kevin Rudd yelled at me when I told him he was an all round disappointment, so now I know that rage is at his core.’ David Marr writes well, and he marshalls biographical facts into a coherent story, sifting through the hostile and hagiographic scuttlebuck alike, for which much thanks. But in the end, the essay is unsatisfying. His strategy of beginning with Rudd’s use of expletives about the Chinese at Copenhagen and ending with a moment when Rudd sets his diplomat’s blandness aside and tears strips of the writer (in private, quietly, in response to provocation) may be structurally satisfying, but the conclusion that anger is Rudd’s ‘juice in the machine’ is a wee bit tenuous. Perhaps I identify with Rudd, as a mostly mild-mannered Catholic man from rural Queensland who uses four-letter words and gets cranky when personally attacked. I imagine David Marr himself swears occasionally and has the odd tantrum – at least I hope he does for the sake of his mental equilibrium.

Tellingly, Kevin Rudd’s response, as reported by the ABC,  was a verbal shrug: ‘Commentators, writers, analysts – they will draw their own conclusions.’

But a distinctive feature of the Quarterly Essay series is that it promotes discussion. No doubt all manner of responses will be aired in Nº 39. Here, the title essay accounts for roughly two thirds of the book, leaving the remaining 40 odd pages to discussion of Waleed Aly’s essay last quarter on conservatism. As a first, a number of voices from the neo-right have appear in these pages, many of them doing their usual polemic attack on straw men. Jean Curthoys (not from the right) suggests that Aly really needs a dose of social democracy. Martin Krygier’s piece makes me decide that if I ever make him cross I’d better lay low. And Aly responds to all comers with precision, grace and – in one or two cases undeserved – respect.

A full day at the SWF

My yesterday was entirely devoted to the Sydney Writers Festival, and I had a great time, starting out at Walsh Bay, where my choices seemed to keep me away from the monster queues.

10 : 00 Poetry on the Harbour: Adam Aitken, Judith Beveridge and Kim Cheng Boey, with Ivor (‘I know they’re good poets because I published them’) Indyk in the chair.
In general I prefer to hear poets read their own work over having actors deliver sonorous, deeply felt renditions, because actors’ performances tend to narrow the range of possible readings. And I prefer poets’ readings that avoid the incantatory (though I’m delighted by the over the top bits of Yeats and Tennyson I’ve heard). All the same, all three of these poets read their work with such modesty and introspection that I longed for just a touch of the rock star, just a hint that they might be able to hold us in the palm of their hands and wring our withers.

It was an excellent reading nonetheless. Adam Aitken read his ‘Pol Pot in Paris’, and a poem taken from his father’s letters (introduced with, ‘I love my father, but he had colonial attitudes’) got actual laughs. Judith Beveridge began with an anecdote from Robert Creeley: at a school reading a child asked him, ‘Mr Creeley, was that a real poem or did you just make it up yourself?’ Among the poems that JB had made up herself was a lovely piece about a man washing himself at the railway station tap just outside Delhi. Of the extraordinarily cosmopolitan Kim Cheng Boey’s poems, I particularly liked ‘Stamps’, in which the poet converses with his little daughter.

11 : 30 First Nation Stories: Richard Van Camp and Boori Monty Pryor herded ‘like cats’ by Anita Heiss.
In introducing his poets, Ivor Indyk mentioned university positions and awards. In this session, Anita Heiss talked about which Indigenous Nations/mobs people came from, including herself. Both Richard and Boori perform and tell stories in schools. Richard gave us what I took to be one of his schools performances; Boori talked about his. Both men were very funny, and Boori gets the Me Fail I Fly nomination for the most charming man on the planet. Yet with all the humour and charm he managed to put some hard truths. ‘This is the only country in the world,’ he said, ‘that mines a culture and sells it off to the world but doesn’t want to know about the people who produce it.’ He told of a group of preschool teachers who asked him for advice on how to tell Aboriginal stories to their charges. ‘Do you know about the 1967 Referendum? The Gurindji campaign? The reserves?’ he asked (though he probably named different specifics). ‘You won’t be able to tell the stories until you know about the fight to keep them alive.’

13 : 00 The Politics of Storytelling: Mike Daisey and William Yang, chaired by Annette Shum Wah.
I’m told Mike Daisy’s story was shattering, but I went to sleep during the loud, bombastic opening section of his monologue, which I guess was meant to be the warm-up (a baby cried, presumably at the sheer loudness, and was incorporated into the rant, to the delight of the fans in front of me but adding to my need to absent myself). William Yang showed a number of slides, and it was reassuring to see that his style worked just as well when taken out of the tightly controlled environment of his shows. The discussion was interesting – Annette asked about their provocativeness (William’s photos can be a bit rude, and Mike uses four-letter words, hardly confronting in Sydney I would have thought, but he did mention a show where a big bloc of the audience stood up and walked out – it’s on YouTube and his response is wonderful). William said that when he first did his shows he was part of an angry community. Now he might put in an occasional naughty photo out of impishness. These were such different men, yet their mutual appreciation was lovely to behold.

16 : 00 David Wessel, Meet Paul Keating with George Megalogenis.
Note to anyone doing this kind of gig: it really really helps if you read up on the person you’re appearing with and can refer approvingly to his work. Both these men did that and it was a great leavening to what could have been a dry conversation about economics. David Wessell (economic editor of the Wall Street Journal, was able to drop a number of Keating’s famous phrases into his presentation (‘The recession we had to have’, ‘A shiver looking for a spine to run up’, etc). Wessell explained the causes of the GFC memorably as resulting from two false assumptions in the US: that house prices would never fall, and that extraordinary financial innovations spread risk in such a way as to diminish it to the point of negligibility. Keating, equally memorably described chinese reserves as a great cloud full of water and electricity floating over the world, and Alan Greenspan building a copper pipe up into the sky to draw down the water. He also talked about Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece as having a big one-off party made possible by converting to the Euro and suddenly enjoying German interest rates. Right now we’re seeing the morning-after crash. Questions were probably intelligent, but were well above my head.

18 : 00 Have We All Been Conned?: An Emergency Town Meeting: Bill McKibben, Ross Garnaut and Clive Hamilton, with Tim Flannery as participating Chair, discussing the politics and science of climate change.
A case of false labelling. Of course, we all knew it was a Writers Festival event and not a political rally, so it was no surprise that it was, as my son described them, four bald men in glasses talking to an appreciative audience about the current state of affairs. No one was really concerned to plug his own book – it was, as Tim Flannery, said, a bit of a dream team.

Was Copenhagen a success or failure? Too soon to tell, but it has meant that developing countries are now taking on climate change rather than waiting for the developing countries to do their bit first.

How come Australia is the biggest laggard in climate change action, yet it has the most to lose? Ross Garnaut spoke with transparent obliqueness of lack of political leadership. Bill McKibben, I think it was, first mentioned Kevin Rudd by name. Clive Hamilton sunk the boot: Kevin Rudd thinks science is a lobby group, and he’s a manager not a leader.

What about the Greens’ rejection of the CPRS? A lamentable strategic error, seemed to be the consensus, rather than a grievous failure of principle as we have seen from federal Labor. Bill McKibben said wise words here. Coming from afar, he said, he had the luxury of responding without knowing or needing to know the details, but what we have to remember is that any victory, however small, is to be celebrated, and any victory, however large, is only a step forward. This is a struggle that will continue for our lifetimes and beyond.

Perhaps the grimmest note of the evening was the statement from, I think, Bill McKibben, that our challenge now is no longer to prevent climate change but to take action to deal with the new world we now live in.

In question time we reaped the consequences of the false advertising. Person after person took the microphone to tell us what they thought about the subject. One woman, from an outfit called A Hundred Percent Renewable, had even brought a banner, which she trailed after her disconsolately as she left the microphone, having failed to get a taker to hold up its other end.

And I’m off to another full day today.

Open letter to Jennifer Maiden

I think this is a poem, but the chances of anyone else publishing it are very slim, so here it is, blogged.

Open letter to Jennifer Maiden
Dear Jennifer, please write about Kevin
and Julia. The best I could manage
was a clerihew when they won the election:
oooKevin Rudd
ooomay be a bit of a fuddy-dud
ooobut at least we’ll no longer be showered
ooowith the duplicitous spittle of Howard.
But now that he’s backed off
from tackling climate change
and Julia’s refusing
to talk to the teachers’ unions
we need something stronger
and wiser
than my easy rhymes  –
a muddy rabbit, mesmerised by moonlight,
a studied habit, of playing to the polls,
or bloody sabot-age.
Couldn’t you write us something
about the way his top lip tightens
or hers curls,
her pontifical drawl, his parsonical clip?
Something like your George’s
lethal little injections and your Condi’s
costume jewellery, to help us see them
as human?

Jennifer Maiden’s poems that this refers to explicitly are ‘Together We Will a Cheese Achieve‘ and ‘Costume Jewellery‘ both in Friendly Fire.

How women should live their lives

This piece from yesterday’s Herald includes a fairly shocking glimpse of Kevin Rudd unplugged: ‘Rudd rolled his eyes and in a terse voice lacking any sense of irony remarked that [completing a PhD] is the “excuse” that “all” young women are using nowadays to avoid starting families.’

Penny had a strikingly similar encounter yesterday.

I haven’t mentioned this before, but after 37 or so years in the workforce – as an activist for women’s health, childcare, community health, and a consultant on those and similar fields – Penny is taking a year off to do a Graduate Diploma in Fine Art. Yesterday she ran into an older woman, a feminist public intellectual, whom I will call Lilith. When Penny told Lilith what she was doing, Lilith said (in a striking verbal echo of the Prime Minister): ‘In these gloomy times it’s not surprising that so many people are withdrawing from activism.’ She went on, ‘I’ll keep plugging away.’

Usually I’d follow an anecdote like that with a number of one-line comebacks thought of too late. In this case, though, Penny opened her mouth to talk about the work she’s still doing for asylum seekers etc, but Lilith had actually moved away, her assumptions about the role of art untroubled by the evidence.