While I am generally pleased with the replacement of Kevin Rudd by Julia Gillard, there are enough nagging doubts and reservations to cause me to refrain from throwing my hat in the air. Among the principal ones:
(1) I worry about the use of the term “negotiation” in relation to the forthcoming interactions between the Government and the mining industry. This is not a negotiation. The Government makes laws, and persons both natural and corporate within the jurisdiction are meant to obey them.
Accordingly, a self-respecting Government does not negotiate with private companies what they are prepared to accept. What it does do in relation to a matter as complex as a resource rent tax is discuss the matter in detail with the affected parties and hear what they have to say about any perceived problems with the design of the scheme, for the principal purpose of avoiding any unintended consequences. These discussions should be on the basis that there will be a resource rent tax, but the Government will actually be listening to what the miners have to say about the design of the tax.
Perhaps I am just starting at shadows, perhaps it is just a bit of sloppy language, but in someone who chooses her words as carefully as Prime Minister Gillard appears to do, I worry and wonder.
(2) I worry deeply about language that suggests that the Government sees the need to take time over establishing a new consensus on climate change, time which I guess will be measured in years, not weeks or months. Consensus is great, but in this domain we need leadership. The deniers will never agree, and neither will the large emitters if they see that it is going to cost them something, as cost them it must. Efforts to establish consensus will simply give the antagonistic interest groups time to redouble their efforts and cause further delay. The Government knows what the issues are, it knows where everybody stands. It is time for the Government to make some decisions and get on with it.
(3) All of the language about understanding the anxieties of people about asylum seekers arriving on our shores fills me with foreboding. Although she said some reassuring things on her first 7.30 Report interview, words critical of attempts to inflame the issue, I fear that she is going to do the politically pragmatic thing on this issue, rather than the right thing.
In saying this I am not drawing an unfavourable contrast between Gillard and Rudd. When Rudd said he was not going to take a lurch to the right on this issue, he did it from the comfortable position of having already lurched, through the outrageous suspension of processing applications for asylum from Sri Lankans and Afghans, not to mention tasty little numbers like incarcerating people in Leonora, a remote mining town in Western Australia.
(4) I see no sign that Prime Minister Gillard will adopt any kind of balanced position in relation to Israel and the plight of the Palestinians. On the contrary, if her performance at the Australia-Israel Leadership Forum last year is anything to go by, we can expect a continuation of the reflexive obedience to Israel’s interests that has come to characterise Australia’s approach to the Middle East over a long period of time. Speaking just six months after Operation Cast Lead (the Israeli invasion of Gaza) she empathised with Israel’s angst about Hamas firing home-made rockets over the barrier fence, but had nothing to say about the civilian casualties in Gaza. In her remarkably enthusiastic address to the Forum on 22 June 2009 (see transcript here) she spoke of our wonderful shared values, and spoke about how “exclusion and humiliation breed despair and hatred”, but did not seem able to cross-reference this to what motivates the Palestinians who have been dispossessed for over 60 years, and lived under brutal military occupation for over 40 years.
(5) On foreign policy more generally, she has little if any background and one does not acquire a sure touch in this area overnight. That is not a disqualification, but the likely consequence is that she will adopt very “safe” approaches at a time when some imagination and critical judgements are needed. We need a Government which is prepared to challenge some tired old positions, but the likelihood is is that foreign policy will more than usually be an extension of domestic policy by other means – the key driver of foreign policy positions will be the desire not to offend any particular domestic constituency. The attitude to Israel is probably a function of this, and we can expect to see an uncritical approach to the US alliance because the political imperative will be to avoid being characterised as “leftish” or soft on national security or a danger to the alliance.
Again I am not drawing an unfavourable contrast between Gillard and Rudd. Rudd brought little to the development of Australian foreign policy, in spite of all the claims and posturing to the contrary.
I hope I am wrong about all of the above. Time will tell.