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Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd knows more than most about dealing with the unexpected. “I was elected as prime minister at the end of 2007 and the financial crisis hit in 2008,” he recalls. “Suddenly we were in existential land - trying to prevent our financial institutions from falling over, trying to ensure we did everything possible to prevent an economic recession and, therefore, the scourge of mass unemployment.”
Given the suddenness and severity of this global financial meltdown, world leaders could perhaps have been forgiven for prioritising immediate issues at the expense of long-term plans. Kevin Rudd, however, emphasises the need for a clear strategic vision in overcoming such crises.
“Stabilising financial systems is one part, but then there is the real everyday economy,” he explains. “You've got to articulate a vision that is possibly impossible. I said to the government we would come through and not go into recession. And although I was told this was impossible, we became the only major economy not to go into recession as a result of the crisis. This took coherence, a team, and absolute determination that it was doable - and we pulled it off.”
The gravity of the situation was hardly lost on the then Australian prime minister, who admitted to real trepidation in enacting the economic stimulus plan which insulated the national economy against recession. “It's a trembling hand that signs a personal guarantee for every single Australian's savings deposits and every intra-bank loan made internationally for every Australian bank. But, based on the best advice, we took early interventions to ensure that none of our financial institutions got in trouble.”
After attaining office in 2007, Rudd focussed the government's attention on Indigenous affairs and set in motion a plan for achieving reconciliation between all members of Australian society. “We had not attended to this for about 200 years and white Australians had treated aboriginal Australians appallingly,” he explains, referring to the discriminatory policies of previous Australian governments. “We needed to, frankly, set this to rights.”
To realise this national reconciliation and bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, Rudd embarked upon a three-stage process. “Firstly, I stood up in Parliament and delivered a formal Apology to Indigenous Australians and without reservation,” he recalls. “This was controversial - we all thought there was going to be a racist reaction among white Australians - but what stunned me was that, once you stepped out into the cold, there was actually very little racist reaction because the time had come.”
This Apology rightly attracted attention and commendation around the world. However, as Prime Minister Rudd and his government recognised, substantive improvements were the truest measure of success. “Words are easy, actions are hard and the hard thing was identifying what to do to close the gap between the opportunities available to European Australians and Indigenous Australians. So, secondly, I said we would start a national strategy for closing that gap. Education, health, unemployment and housing and, of course, the key determinants of mortality. And so we set ourselves a set of measures to do this.”
The third element of Prime Minister Rudd's reconciliation effort was the utilisation of data to track policy outcomes, alongside a firm commitment to transparent reporting. “Every year since 2008 we published an annual report to Parliament on the anniversary of that Apology, which is an accounting on where the numbers stand on early-childhood education, on primary education, secondary education retention and, similarly, across health outcomes, employment and housing,” says Rudd. “Seven years later, those indicators show that we've gone ahead in most of them and gone ahead reasonably; in one we are static and one we have slid slightly behind. But I'd much rather have the numbers and the data to prove that our aspirations for reconciliation are reflected in reality.”
Rudd's transforming zeal was not confined to domestic matters, however. Appropriately for a fluent Mandarin speaker, he emphasised the need for regional integration and argued passionately for closer cooperation between nations of the Asia-Pacific. Such advocacy often stands in stark contrast to general perceptions of strained regional relations.
“All the countries are very different but if you pick up the newspapers you'd be tempted to believe that the region is slowly in the process of being ripped apart, given its unresolved territorial disputes and different trading arrangements,” he admits. “And at the centre of this lies the rise of China and different countries' reactions to it.”
“We need to start thinking concretely and expressly about one simple proposition: across this vast and dynamic region, the things that unite us are much larger than the things that might divide us,” he says. “This comes down to questions of national political leadership. I've always advocated the emergence of something called the Asia-Pacific Community to change the way people traditionally think and to see ourselves as part of one dynamic community rather than a bunch of different nationalities. The question is how we progressively bring our region together - much like the ASEAN countries have done. This should be our vision for the wider region as a whole.”
Rudd's ambitions for a formalised Asia-Pacific Community have not, as yet at least, come fully to fruition. He suggests that, where policy outcomes do not match stated ambitions, a leader is best advised to assume full responsibility. “In my country, the best way to get back trust is to stand up, clearly acknowledge the problem and be absolutely frank about how it happened. And then, equally frankly, say this is what we will do to set it to rights. People out there in our increasingly globalised world understand every form of political language these days which tries to duck and weave and avoid responsibility. It is far better to be straightforward and take responsibility.”
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