Kuala Lumpur – Premier Forum
21 October 2015
HOST: … And finally we have Kevin Rudd. He served as Australia’s 26th Prime Minister from 2007-2010 and again in 2013, with a stint as Foreign Minister in the years in between. He is well known for being an outspoken Chinese scholar and a fluent Mandarin speaker. Ni hao.
HOST: Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the audience and myself as well, I’d like to start by asking a rather broad question and that is, in keeping with the session’s topic, what is your country’s transformational journey? Where does it start and where is it now? Mr Rudd could I start with you.
KEVIN RUDD: For me, when I was elected in 2007, the first building block of the transformational journey was reconciliation between Aboriginal Australians and European Australians, like me. We had attended to this for about 200 years and white Australians had treated Aboriginal Australians appallingly. And we need to, frankly, set that to rights. So we did two things, maybe three, which I think began a process of long-term transformation.
One is I stood up in the Parliament and formally, for the first time in the country’s history, delivered a formal Apology to Indigenous Australians, without reservation. This was controversial. We all thought there was going to be a racist reaction among white Australians. What stunned me was once you actually took the step out into the cold, in fact there was very little racist reaction because the time had come.
The second thing we did was a practical thing. Words are easy, actions are hard as Idris said to us this morning. And the hard thing was what do you do practically to close the gap between the opportunities available to Indigenous Australians and European Australians? And so, in that speech, I said we’ll now embrace a national strategy of closing the gap in education and in health and in employment and in housing and, of course, in the key determinants of mortality. And so we set ourselves a set of measures.
And the last thing we did was, Australia is a federation and sometimes, I’m sure you’ve observed, a fairly cantankerous federation. But to get together all the Premiers of the states, who often disagree on these questions, to agree to a national fund to give effect to the policy commitments we’d made in closing the gap.
The final bit was a bit of reporting. Every year since 2008 we have an annual report to the Parliament on the anniversary of that Apology, which is an accounting of where the numbers stand on early childhood education, on primary education, on secondary education retention and similarly across health outcomes, employment and housing. So seven or so years later, what have we achieved? In those indicators – four, five, six of them – we’ve probably gone ahead in about five and gone ahead reasonably, in one we’re about static and one has slid slightly behind but I’d much rather have the numbers and the data to prove whether our aspirations for reconciliation are reflected in reality.
HOST: Mr Rudd, let me just jump in and ask you – and please jump in when you feel free – and that is, we’re living in a time where there is so much change, probably more so than anytime in history. How do you keep on the ball as a leader? I mean, if there is this vision and things around you keep changing, how do you keep on the straight and narrow, how do you keep on the path?
RUDD: The first principle, which was touched on before, is to have a clear collective understanding with the members of your country of what the direction of your country is meant to be.
HOST: But I mean, how do you get four guys or ten guys sitting in a room and all agree?
RUDD: Tell jokes and, it’s in Australia, so then you bring in the beer. And benefitting also from, frankly, when I was Prime Minister we had a record number of women in the Cabinet and they tended to civilize things.
HOST: I’ll ask Helen Clark about that.
RUDD: Let me add one thing. When I was elected what unfolded then was the greatest detour of a preconceived national direction, namely the Global Financial Crisis. I was elected at the end of ’07, the Crisis hits in ’08 and then suddenly we’re into existential land which is what do we do, how do we prevent our financial institutions from falling over, how do you ensure you do everything possible to prevent an economic recession and, therefore, the scourge of mass unemployment? So, if you take that as an example, of managing the unexpected – the classic Black Swan events – that’s part and parcel of being in government as well.
For us, to secure the long-term transformation of the country in areas that I’ve touched on (not just in Indigenous policy but in climate change, reforming our education system and payments for national hospitals and health reform – big stuff) we had to survive the economy. The key thing there was everyday myself, the Treasurer, the key ministers would receive bulletins from around the world as to what markets were saying.
Two, we, based on the best advice, took early interventions to ensure none of our financial institutions got in trouble. It’s a trembling hand that signs a personal guarantee for every single Australian’s saving deposits and every interbank loan internationally for every Australian major bank, which is what we did. But as a result, no problems – had it failed and I would be the pin-up boy of global financial disasters. If you do the right thing everyone forgets about it, by the way.
And then the last thing is this, as my colleagues sitting here will know, stabilizing financial systems is one part of it, then you’ve got the real economy – coming out of the sort of economic orthodoxies that had prevailed in the United States and the regulatory destruction which occurred after the repeal of Glass-Steagall and others. We had to deal with the real economy. Idris said this morning, what do you do? I can’t remember his exact words but you’ve got to articulate a vision which you think is possibly impossible and then go for it. So I said to the Government, “We will come through this without going into recession.” The Treasury Officer said, That’s impossible Prime Minister.” I said, “Well, tell me what makes it possible. What level of intervention in fiscal and monetary policy do we need in the next twelve months and how should it be staged to achieve that?”
And the bottom-line is – day by day, week by week, and for an entire year – we met that way and when the numbers came in and in the critical quarter we avoided recession we then became the only major developed economy not to go into recession during the Crisis. That took, I’ve got to say, coherence, a team but absolute determination that this was doable. And we pulled it off.
HOST: The interconnectivity, Mr Rudd, huge challenge right?
RUDD: Well that’s true, interconnectivity at home and abroad in Australia – vast country, small population (24 million), fifth or sixth largest landmass in the world. What I launched was a broadband revolution so that every household, every premise, would be linked with highspeed broadband – partly a productivity agenda, partly to ensure that no one was sucked into social exclusion.
But I think your references are to interdependence and connectivity around the region and beyond. Let’s talk about it in that sense. We belong to this region called the Asia-Pacific region. We are a vastly different lot, are we not? You’ve got a bunch of Australians, some rowdy New Zealanders, some very polite Singaporeans, wonderful Malaysians, an emerging China, a dynamic Korea (I think the South, not the North). You look across this region, but if you pick up the newspapers everyday on the question of transformation, you’d be tempted to believe that this region is slowly in the process of being ripped apart – given its unresolved territorial disputes, given the bifurcation of trading arrangements throughout the region between TPP, RCEP and other trade proposals et cetera. And of course, at the centre of this lies the rise of China and different countries’ reaction to it.
In terms of transformational leadership for our region we need to start thinking concretely and expressly about one simple proposition: that across this vast and dynamic region, the things that unite us are vastly larger than the things that might divide us. In other words, our challenges of opportunities of common security, of economic interdependence and growing jobs and investment opportunities for each other. These are very great and large indeed. We start to need to think much more confidently as a region, where we have a positive vision for an integrated region for the future. Not one which is, stone by stone, being ripped apart.
Of course, that comes down to questions of national political leadership. I’ve always advocated the long-term emergence of something called the Asia-Pacific Community to change the way people traditionally think, to change their mindset to see ourselves as being part of one large dynamic community rather than a bunch of petty nationalities ripping us apart bit by bit. So I think, for transformation coming out of connectivity or interconnectedness and interdependency, the vision that is needed is how do we progressively bring our region together? You in South East Asia I think have done it quite brilliantly with ASEAN. You can remember the history of ASEAN over 40 years – you began as a bunch of countries that really didn’t like each other (I’m sorry for telling truths out of school). 40 years later, the thought of any of the ASEAN countries engaging in armed conflict with any of the other ASEAN countries is just now unthinkable. That should be our vision for the wider region which we call the Asia-Pacific.
RUDD: Trust is a very fragile thing, a very fragile thing between people and certainly between people and governments. What Helen says is absolutely right, and our terms overlapped a little bit, is that: be very careful about what you say in public space and be very attentive to keeping the checklist of what you have said and how you implement it. Again, Idris said this morning he has the red light scheme in the Malaysian government. That’s how we did it in the Cabinet. We had a list of everything we’d promised, we’d divide it into three major program areas (on security, on opportunity as well as productivity) and then everyone knew which bit of the jigsaw puzzle they were responsible for. Then we had a red, amber and green light system. It’s a good way, if you’re the Prime Minister or the Secretary of the Prime Minister’s department, to say, “We’re three months late for something.” But if you go the other way and, as has often become the convention in Western politics at least, which is to engage in grand rhetorical statements and then nothing happens. Frankly, trust is a very fragile thing – it then begins to evaporate.
HOST: I’d like to follow up on that. When you have countries, and all of your countries have diverse demographics, whether it’s race, religion, income. How do you make each one of them trust you? It’s not just one country, it’s not like the United States of America, in each one of your countries you have people who are Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, whatever have you; some are poor, some are rich; some are educated, some are not. Surely that must be a challenge?
RUDD: I think opportunity – I’ll just be very brief. We add to the sense of community in Australia what we call the ‘Land of the Fair Go’, and that is actually a message of opportunity for all. Neither of my parents ever went to high school, I grew up on a farm, but what I observed over the decades is that through good reforms in education meant that folks like me eventually got to go to school, got to go to university, got to go off and do whatever you like. It’s giving everyone that opportunity. One of the most humbling things which occurs in my country – I’m sure Helen’s experience is similar – is that when people because Australian citizens and you participate in citizenship ceremonies – we do them all the time – is that you stand there as Prime Minister or as Foreign Minister and you preside over the citizenship ceremony.
Here are 150 nations from on earth coming to, in our case, a set of values which make up the national story. The unwritten code in my country – doesn’t matter where you come from, doesn’t matter whether you’re Muslim or whether you’re Catholic or whether you’re Protestant or whether you’re of no religion whatsoever – is that whatever problems you had in the country from which you came, they are left there and you come to build a new nation. One of the great delights is seeing so many Muslims in Australia out there in every range of life now – in politics and in business and in the education community – all contributing to nation building.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Hamza and I am from Pakistan. My question is for all of you. A lot of emphasis was given on trust – that the government should maintain the trust of the people. Let’s say for some reason or another the trust is lost. What does the government do then? Because they simply can’t let go, they still have to do something. So how to regain that trust back?
HOST: Good question. Who’d like to tackle that? Mr Rudd.
RUDD: I’ve been in that position myself, where despite your best efforts you let something slip and, therefore, you’ve got to deal with the reality that you’ve just described. Certainly in my country the best way to do that is to stand up, clearly acknowledge the problem. That is, where you’ve done something wrong and to be absolutely frank about how that happened. And then to say, equally frankly, this is what we now will do to set it to rights.
People out there in the community, in our increasingly globalized world, are increasingly smart. They understand every form of political language these days which tries to duck and weave and avoid responsibility. It’s far better to simple and straightforward and say, “Here is a problem, I’m responsible for it, I’m the Prime Minister, I apologize for it – this is what we’ll now do differently.” My experience of the public is that they are a fairly intelligent and tolerant group. They don’t expect us as political leaders to be perfect. They don’t expect us to be saints, living-saints – they just don’t. But let me tell you, there is a limit to the number of times you can do that. You’ve got to be very very careful. I think they’ll let you go once, they’ll let you go twice. I wouldn’t bet it for the third time.