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After interrupting Kevin Rudd’s dream of becoming UN secretary-general, Malcolm Turnbull has learnt what happens when you cross the former prime minister. By Richard Farmer.

Kevin Rudd’s next move for the UN

Kevin Rudd at the 52nd Security Conference in Munich earlier this year.
Credit: EPA

The Kevin Rudd for the United Nations sideshow tells us more about Malcolm Turnbull than it does about Kevin. This prime minister is an appalling judge of politicians and their character. The very moment the man from Queensland approached him about his plans for having a run at becoming UN secretary-general, two things should have been obvious to Turnbull.

The first was the unforgiving nature of his Liberal Party. History shows that the only way it treats vanquished rivals is to kick them when they are down. The very idea of helping a Labor man find a job of importance after defeat is anathema to Liberal tradition. A prime minister with a sense of parliamentary history would have known it. Anything other than a curt “get lost” right at the start was an invitation for criticism from within his own ranks. For a leader already with enemies aplenty behind him, not killing the idea immediately was foolhardy.

Not that this approach of showing no mercy is just a cause of some right-wing Neanderthals. It has been thus throughout my six decades reporting politics in Canberra. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop with her apparent support of Rudd for the UN, on the advice of her department, showed as much a lack of judgement as her leader. She should share the blame.

Then there was the nature of the man Turnbull was dealing with. The approach for support was coming from one of the most untrustworthy and self-centred men to ever achieve high office in Australia. For a Kevin Rudd still on the search for personal power, this time on an international not a national stage, niceties of private conversations being kept private would not apply. How could a politician who had watched Rudd in the house of representatives for more than a decade not realise he was a man not to be trusted?

I realise it is impossible for an outsider to know what was said and what was, or was not, promised when the two men met and discussed the UN job. As they say in the classics, you can pay your money and take your choice. Perhaps, as is often the case when it comes to understanding what actually takes place in politics, it was a cartoonist who got it right.

Cathy Wilcox in the Fairfax papers drew a wonderful conversation between the former Labor and the current Liberal prime minister. “Well?” Rudd asked. “Maybe,” replied Turnbull. Then, ad infinitum: “Well?” “Maybe.” “Well?” “Maybe.” Then: “Well?” “No.” An angry Rudd finally exclaimed “He led me on!”

The one thing we can be sure of is that a better politician than Malcolm Turnbull would not have let it come to the embarrassing end for him that we saw this week. That Rudd would twist and turn and try to verbal him should not have surprised Turnbull. The man he was speaking with has made an art form of deviousness. The Turnbull “no” should have come last December, making that the end of it.

Instead Kevin’s drama will keep rolling on. The man is a master at self-promotion. Perhaps there has never been one better at manipulating journalists with the well-placed leak, such as the release of his letters purporting to say what Turnbull told him at their private meetings. The PR techniques will not change. Nor will the gullibility of journalists who love to pretend they know what happened at secret meetings.

So we can expect more of the same – like the glowingly pro-Rudd commentary from a pair of his former staffers that this week brought.

Consider the view of Dr Carl Ungerer, who now glories in the title of head of the leadership, crisis and conflict management program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, but who between 2012-13 was a mere senior adviser to the Australian foreign minister. He wrote on The Guardian website:

“The other 12 candidates vying for the job will breathe a sigh of relief that Rudd is not in the race. Like Marlon Brando, he could have been a genuine contender. He has the global connections, and more importantly the diplomatic skills to be considered in the front of the existing pack. … If the selection was merit-based, Rudd would get the job.”

Geoff Raby, who served as ambassador to China under Rudd and Julia Gillard and worked with Rudd in Australia’s Beijing embassy in 1986, was not conceding defeat for his man in a piece he penned for The Australian Financial Review. In fact, Raby proposed a novel strategy that could still allow him to win.

“Rudd is understandably angry with his rejection, and the manner in which it was done, and smarting over the humiliation he has received, especially in front of the people that matter most to Rudd – those that stride the international stage of policy and diplomacy. As we have seen from his domestic political career, Rudd is not a quitter. And like most politicians, has a hide much thicker than most people could imagine…” Raby wrote.

“If the UNSG selection process is extended beyond September, then Rudd has a chance. His strategy so far has had two main elements. One is to be the compromise candidate when all others have exhausted themselves and the selection process is in gridlock. The other is for Clinton to be president-elect and back him into the job.

“The manner of the PM’s rejection of Rudd and declaring him unfit to serve has certainly harmed his chances of becoming the compromise candidate of choice. It will, however, have done nothing to weaken Clinton’s support for Rudd if she decides to spend political capital on his appointment. He ticks all the boxes for her, not least as someone who purportedly knows how to handle China.”

So there we have it. Hope springs eternal. There’s always the long shot hope that a President Clinton will become the Rudd rescuer and say to hell with those churlish Liberals who refuse to reciprocate for the open-mindedness Labor showed in allowing Amanda Vanstone to complete her term as ambassador to Italy, in appointing former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson as ambassador to NATO and Tim Fischer as ambassador to the Holy See. We, the mighty United States of America, need Kevin to get the job.

It is an amusing and fanciful notion but not if you are Malcolm Turnbull. Kevin Rudd has become one of those omnipresent political media personalities, like Pauline Hanson. The press gallery of Canberra just cannot let go of Kevin and his dramas. In the coming months until a new UN secretary-general is chosen they will squeeze every possible news drop out of this story. It has already dominated the week’s front pages. Turnbull’s weakness just encourages them.

And when the inevitable happens and the permanent members of the Security Council decide on someone else, the speculation about Kevin’s future will not end. Our former leader will be off pursuing some other international role - some kind of UN climate change tsar, a head of UNESCO, who knows. A Prime Minister Turnbull will confront the very same kind of problems again with a Liberal Party determined to give a former opponent nothing.

Within the Labor Party, meanwhile, they will be hoping that someone, somewhere will find something to do for the leader they would like to forget. Any resurrection of Kevin 07 in the pantheon of party greats is still a long way off.

Surely there has never been greater political hypocrisy than the way in the past week that Labor luminaries have pretended that the decision not to support the Rudd candidature was wrong.

At this point, Rudd’s prospects are perhaps best summed up by his own spokeswoman. When The Saturday Paper first reported Rudd’s campaign for the secretary-general job in April 2014 – his duchessing of foreign governments, his propositioning of their envoys – she said: “This is not going to happen. There is a good reason for this. Appointments for the secretary-general of the UN are on a cyclical, geographical basis. The current secretary-general is from Asia. His predecessor was from Africa. Before that, there were secretaries-general from the Middle East and Latin America. And it is agreed that the next rotation will be Eastern Europe, which has never had a secretary-general. Last time I looked, Australia was not in Eastern Europe. For those reasons, Mr Rudd is not a candidate.”

All that is needed now is for someone to tell Kevin Rudd.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "The manoeuvring candidate ". Subscribe here.

Richard Farmer
is a political commentator.

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