A foreign situation for a sitting PM
It's rare that a foreign minister rolls the prime minister on a big international issue. But the surprise win by Bob Carr on the Israel-Palestine question may have been a Labor victory for both legacy and the next election.
In cabinet, foreign policy choices normally and naturally reside with the prime minister and foreign minister. The rule was pithily expressed by Alexander Downer when I asked him once how a decision had been treated by cabinet: "The Prime Minister voted for it and I voted for it, so it went through with a clear majority."
The Downer dictum is one of many proofs that a foreign minister's single most important diplomatic relationship is with the PM. When the stars are properly aligned and that relationship is sound, much else can follow. Thus, when a prime minister rolls the foreign minister on a key decision, the ripples go in many directions. And when a foreign minister overturns a prime minister's wishes, then the ripples can become waves.
When Julia Gillard shifted Labor policy on uranium sales to India in November last year without even consulting her then foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, it was a major sign that the strange experiment was nearly at an end and the tensions were becoming explosive. As this column said at the time, the way Gillard dudded Rudd showed she could no longer consult the foreign minister on foreign policy: there was not much left in the relationship and everything to play for.
With that as the comparison, how do we rate Bob Carr's rout of Gillard last week over Australia's vote in the UN on the status of Palestine?
Carr's standing and perceptions about his throw weight have been enhanced. He took on his leader and won a foreign policy argument in a way Stephen Smith, for instance, could never have imagined when serving as Rudd's foreign minister. But this is not all about Bob. Carr prevailed because cabinet and caucus joined in revolting against Gillard's preference to stand beside Israel, the US and Canada to vote 'no' against Palestine. While Carr defined the policy point at issue, the victory was delivered by weight of numbers in the parliamentary Labor Party.
The foreign policy defeat for Gillard may not do much damage to her leadership inside Labor. But it was a sharp reminder to Gillard that what Caucus gives, it can also take away. She ends the parliamentary year still in the top job, yet with a reminder that her job is to listen as well as lead. A leader's preferences can prevail only so far; Kevin Rudd might have benefited from such a lesson at an early stage of his presidential prime ministership.
On the policy point at issue, Carr can claim with some justice that the history of Australia's approach to Israel and Palestine favoured his argument to stay neutral in the UN vote. To track that history, see the two Parliamentary Library research papers which set out this record: one covering 1947 to 2007, the other on policy under Rudd and Gillard.
The previous column on this issue noted Kishore Mahbubabni's argument that, on Israel-Palestine, Australia has voted in the UN the same way as Canada; he called this 'geopolitical folly' because Australia does not receive the same blessings from geography as Canada. This time, Australia did not vote like Canada, although not too much of the decision was due to a greater awareness of Islamic sensitivities in Indonesia and Malaysia. Gareth Evans probably carried as much weight with his argument about Australia being on the wrong side of history.
But perhaps domestic politics rather than history or foreign policy was tolling loudest in caucus. When looking for answers in Canberra, always look at where the voters are. And on Israel-Palestine, the demographics are heading Palestine's way in Australia, just as they are in Israel. The 2011 census showed that Australia has 476,000 people who list their religious affiliation as Islam and 97,000 who list Judaism.
Bob Carr was arguing about being on the right side of a lot of potential voters as well as the right side of history.
Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Reproduced with permission.