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From the file

The Backstory | A series of in-depth conversations with people who have the power to shape events

Episode 10: Kevin Rudd

Episode 10: Kevin Rudd

Andrew Neil talks to the former Australian prime minister and president of the Asia Society about China under President Xi Jinping, its relationship with the United States and whether Australia could become a republic under the new Labor government

Transcript

Andrew Neil, narrating: Hello, I’m Andrew Neil and this is The Backstory. A series of in-depth interviews with people who have the power to shape events, and to influence our understanding of them. 

In this episode I’m joined by a man who was prime minister of Australia twice and before that, a diplomat.

Kevin Rudd was posted to the embassy in Beijing, which is when he first met the man who would go onto lead China today – Xi Jingping.

A proponent of engaging with China, Kevin Rudd has written a new book called The Avoidable War. He’s also chief executive and president of the Asia Society in New York.

I spoke to him about China under President Xi’s leadership, the West’s policy towards it and what it’s like seeing his party back in power in Australia.

This is The Backstory from Tortoise.

***

Andrew Neil: Kevin Rudd, some used to argue that as China got richer it would become less authoritarian, but under President Xi it’s gone from authoritarian to pretty much full totalitarian, why?

Kevin Rudd: Well, I think it’s certainly intensified its authoritarianism, and I think the reason why Xi Jinping has taken politics in China in that direction is that he fears ultimately the loss of control by the Communist Party.  Xi Jinping is a Leninist, sees the Communist Party, to paraphrase him, as the backbone of the nation, the vanguard of the revolution.  These may seem antiquated phrases in our discussions in the West; they’re not so antiquated in Beijing where they remain a live part of the political discourse.  So it’s all about long term political control by the party.

Andrew Neil: It’s interesting that it’s developed under President Xi because we’d come to think, rightly or wrongly, that Communism was largely a sham in sort of state capitalist China, but as you say, President Xi talks a lot about Marxism, Leninism, he’s resurrected, I think it was an old Maoist phrase, common prosperity, which means Socialism he’s talking about.  Is this just talk or where is it leading?

Kevin Rudd: I can understand how a number of people on the collective West would have seen this as cosmetic ideology during the period of Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, essentially from 1978 through until 2012.  Mind you, throughout that period the Communist Party always described itself as a Marxist-Leninist Party, and when push came to shove, remember 1989 and Tiananmen, the Leninist Party asserted itself with full vigour, deployed the military and then crushed what they saw as the counter revolution of 1989.  So it’s always been there, however since Xi Jinping took over in 2012/13, if you look carefully at his internal ideological discourse he’s basically haunted by the collapse of the Soviet Union, haunted by the collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and he regards the weakening of ideology as the breaching of the outer defences of the system.  And that’s why you’ve seen a much more concerted push to re-insert the party into the centre of Chinese politics administration and the economy, and increasingly foreign policy as well.

Andrew Neil: You can see that part of what this means under President Xi is that the state is playing a bigger role again in a number of areas, and one of the things that surprised many people is that he cracked down hard on China’s vibrant high-tech sector, he seems to think that its entrepreneurial elite, which of course had become mega rich, represented a threat to him and to the Chinese Communist Party, but isn’t there a risk that in doing so he undermines China’s economic miracle?

Kevin Rudd: Very much so, and this is a contest ultimately between ideological rectitude, as defined by Xi Jinping as a classical Marxist Leninist on the one hand, and the dictates of economic pragmatism on the other, which is about growing people’s living standards, improving employment opportunities and growing the economic power of the Chinese nation.  In the past 35 years under Deng, Jiang and Hu, essentially the nature of that equation was they put politics and ideology second and they put economic growth, animated by market principles, in first place.  Interestingly, Deng Xiaoping justified that himself in Marxist Leninist terms as a necessary stage in the evolution of society and the economy, but what Xi Jinping has done is turn that on its head; it’s ideology and politics first, the economy second, and of course the ultimate dilemma faced by long term authoritarian regimes in pursuit of their long-term political resilience is that they undermine their economic base for legitimacy.  You’ve seen that already over the last five years with a slowing in China’s productivity growth, a slowing in China’s private fixed capital investment numbers and also, as you’ve said, the collective entrepreneurial class taking a fright at what they see as Xi’s common prosperity agenda.  So for those reasons the tensions are real; for Xi Jinping, his resolve is ultimately one of control and he believes he can manage the economic cost on the way through.

Andrew Neil: It’s interesting that he sees the political control is more important than economic dynamism in a sense, I think that’s probably the right way to see it, but I wonder sometimes if in the West we underestimate the formidable economic problems that he faces that China now faces.  The state-owned industries, the ones that remain state owned and state controlled, they now form a massive rust belt, the high-tech sector now has the dead hand of the state hanging over it, the property market is the biggest financial bubble in the world – five trillion dollars of debt, trillion I should emphasise, of debt.  There’s a lot of difficulties in there is there not?

Kevin Rudd: I think it’s correct that when we analyse the strengths of modern China, both in its politics, in its economics and its security policy, that we often overlook the internal fragilities of the system.  We’ve just talked about one of them which is the rigidities which arise from excessive political control, purely within politics itself as people now experience less personal, and frankly intellectual, freedom under Xi Jinping than under his three most recent predecessors.  But on the economy, it is also the case that there is a raft of political and economic challenges or political economy challenges which confront the regime.  You pointed to the state-owned enterprise sector; it is massive, it is inefficient, but rather than as Xi Jinping’s predecessors did, which identified this as a massive economic problem which needed to be addressed by turning more productive activity over to the private sector, Xi Jinping instead has put this process in reverse.  The state-owned enterprise sector has had a rebirth of activity, the so-called mixed economy model has enabled state owned enterprises now to merge with private firms or requiring productive private firms to merge with dysfunctional state-owned enterprises.  And on top of that also you’ve seen the crackdowns in the tech sector and the crackdowns in the property sector.  Now the tech sector and the property sector and the private sector have been three major generators of economic growth, employment growth and an increase in living standards in recent times.  So again in pursuit of Xi Jinping’s ideological agenda, rather than seeking to reform the state-owned enterprise sector, instead we’ve seen a reassertion of the centrality of the Chinese party state, and once again the private sector has been the non-beneficiary, but the macro economy is a non-beneficiary as well.

Andrew Neil: The Western assumption has been that China’s undoubted economic success over the past 20, 30, 40 years just continues until it replaces America as the world’s largest economy.  It may start to grow a bit more slowly as it is now, but even so that’s the trajectory that it’s on.  But when you look at its ageing population, ageing more quickly than the authorities thought, the workforce already declining, by some estimates by around three million a year which is quite remarkable, and the growing repression of its people, is it necessarily a given that China just continues to succeed economically?

Kevin Rudd: No, it is not a given at all, and that’s the actual ground zero if you like of the current political and political economy debate within China right now.  And essentially the debate is if you’re going to continue to preference politics and ideological control over entrepreneurial dynamism that you will in fact strangle China’s not just short-term economic growth prospects, but its long-term economic growth prospects as well.  And if you begin to put together the factors which now constitute serious strategic economic headwinds against China, they line up as declining productivity growth, the fact that population growth is now peaking, the fact that the country is rapidly ageing, particularly for a developing country, and that on top of all that you have the workforce already having reached its maximum size back in 2014, and labour costs therefore going through the roof.  Therefore all those factors, quite apart from the additional headwinds provided by Xi Jinping’s decision to move the centre of economic gravity to the left and the international economic headwinds now from the global debate about de-coupling and supply chains; put all that together and you start to see an emerging debate within the China analytical community that says that maybe China doesn’t end up as a larger economy than the United States say by 2030, or that if it does become a larger economy than the United States by that stage it won’t be much larger.

Andrew Neil: We’ve come to think of China, everything you’ve talked about China in economic terms is trillions, trillions of dollars, it has these massive resources growing in size, but when you look at the pressures now on Beijing with slowing growth, but increasing demand for spending on all fronts, even its resources may not be enough for it; there’s demand more for the military to take on America, more for domestic surveillance – it spends more on domestic surveillance than it does on the military, more for health, welfare pensions because as you say the ageing population, more for the Belt and Road investments which are a key part of its foreign policy.  Am I right in thinking it’s not clear that the president can afford to do all of that is it?

Kevin Rudd: If you look purely at budget constraints in China, they are increasingly large, in fact I’ve often argued in the United States that the greatest ally to the United States military is the Chinese health age, care and pension budget because it acts as an overall constraint around unlimited military expenditure within the Chinese system as the Chinese, like the rest of us, ultimately have to make public policy choices about where to invest scarce budgetary resources.  Obviously as a Marxist-Leninist state which believes that you ultimately hold power through the barrel of a gun the military will be preferenced over these other domains.  Look, for example, at North Korea, a formidable military but an impoverished country.  China will never go to that extreme, under its current leadership it would crack its fundamental social and economic legitimacy altogether.  But nonetheless, the constraints are real and therefore we keep coming back to this ultimate economic equation.  It’s a bit like Bill Clinton’s famous aphorism, or that of his campaign in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  And to quote the great Australian moral philosophers, “If you bugger up the economy, you can bugger up everything else.”

Andrew Neil: And so there’s a pressure because we’ve always regarded as a sort of Faustian pact that the Chinese people will put up with all sorts of repression provided the economy, their prosperity, their standard of living is seen to be getting better for them, and particularly for their kids, for the younger generation coming through.  But as the population ages, and China doesn’t spend much on health or welfare or pensions there is now, to keep that Faustian pact, am I right in thinking that the pressure to increase spending in those areas will be huge?

Kevin Rudd: Their analysis as Marxist Leninists of the social contract between the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party is under exactly as you’ve just described, put bluntly it’s, “We’re prepared to cede our political rights to you, the Community Party, on two conditions; one is that you continue to improve the living standards of the Chinese people, lifting us out of poverty and giving us the sorts of living standards we see enjoyed by people in the democratic world and the Western world in particular.”  Now that therefore is an important part of the contract, but there’s a second part as well, and this is what the Chinese Communist Party spends more time on, and that is, “Cause us to be proud of China as a nation in the eyes of the international community.”  In other words the second part of the social contract is a nationalist one, and part of my argument in the book that I’ve just written is there is a danger in the long term that Xi Jinping seeks to move the centre of gravity in Chinese domestic politics and the economy further to the left, but this is offset by him in fact moving the centre of gravity of Chinese nationalism further to the right, giving rise to a more assertive foreign security policy.

Andrew Neil: You write about President Xi’s Chinese nationalism in your new book The Avoidable War which is about American Chinese relations and how to manage that relationship, but part of managing that is that you talk about the need to what you call maximise economic engagement, but isn’t the reverse already happening?  It seems to me it’s now the strategic aim of both Beijing and Washington to de-couple their economies.

Kevin Rudd: The question we have I think within the de-coupling debate is whether it’s capital D or small d de-coupling because within the concept of de-coupling lies a multitude of possible realities.  For example, within trade, given the fact that these two countries are each other’s largest trading partners, is it the de-coupling of all or just the de-coupling of the technology trade, and therefore what would the ultimate dimensions of the trade relationship look like.  So therefore there is a debate to be had about what actual shape of de-coupling is embraced by both sides.  Of course the competition for talent and technology being part of this [algorithmic? 15:34] equation.  Will it land?  I think the United States, from its perspective, would prefer to see a form of de-coupling which focuses on investment and technology, and from the Chinese side, they’d like to see a de-coupling which enables China to maximise its self-sufficiency in the midst of what they perceive to be the threat of American de-coupling and allied de-coupling, around commodities, energy, food, but also around technological self-resilience and self-reliance as well.

Andrew Neil: So it’s interesting that you’re saying it’s the nature of the de-coupling and how far it goes that has to be determined because you can really see it taking place and there’s a lot of Chinese companies now listed on the US Stock Exchanges, but they’re under pressure from Beijing to de-list and some have actually de-listed now.  On the other hand the American regulators are being much tougher with those Chinese companies that want to list, looking at the involvement of the Chinese Communist Party.  And I may be wrong about this Kevin Rudd, but I get the impression that the message coming out from the Biden administration is we’re not so sure you should be doing a lot of foreign investment in China now, that we see it as an increasingly repressive regime at home, an aggressive abroad, it’s not a good place to do business.  Is that the overall atmosphere we see developing now?

Kevin Rudd: At present I think the United States, and to some extent the Chinese, are muddling through.  We don’t as yet have complete clarity on the form of de-coupling that is likely to be embraced, either by Beijing or Washington, with one exception – it’s increasingly clear that the United States sees that its long term national technological interests lie in preventing China from, as they would describe it, stealing US and allied technology, or legitimately accessing it simply by the nature of its imports from the United States semi-conductor industry.  And I think from the Chinese end they see this as an inevitable consequence of the United States seeking to maximise its hold on global economic and strategic power, and therefore the massive doubling down by the Chinese and their national technology self-sufficiency programme and the quantums of public investment now being thrown at ten critical high technology areas, led by artificial intelligence.

Andrew Neil: I guess the atmosphere for Western investment has changed though, there was a time when they were queuing up from Wall Street and the City of London to a lesser extent, German companies out of Frankfurt and so on, to get into China.  It becomes more difficult when the political atmosphere, freedoms trashed in Hong Kong, what some are calling genocide of the Uyghurs, the world’s most repressive surveillance state, increased Communist Party control of private companies, aggressive expansion of the military in the Pacific; the atmosphere for that kind of continued investment has turned against it a bit.

Kevin Rudd: Certainly the sentiment I pick up in European capitals is the overall risk calculus in terms of inbound investment from Europe into China has grown considerably, and for a range of different reasons.  One of course is not wishing to be caught in the middle of the US China technology de-coupling war; that’s one factor of which of course the poster child has been the debate about 5G.  I think another reason has been European corporations have not been immune from the impact that they have seen from radical changes in the policy atmosphere and political atmosphere in Hong Kong where most of these corporations also have operations.  Thirdly I think what they’ve seen within China itself is a rapid predisposition towards sudden policy change on the part of the Chinese Communist Party.  And the conclusion I think overall is that the equation is now much more pessimistic as far as China is concerned compared with even three to five years’ ago.

Andrew Neil: Is America already in a new Cold War with China?

Kevin Rudd: No, it’s not, and I think there’s too much loose language about a second Cold War.  Remember the first Cold War was about two systems, two countries, which were committed to one form or another of mutually assured destruction through the use of thermonuclear weapons.  The second is they had zero economic engagement with each other.  And thirdly these were countries which after the Cuban Missile Crisis with near death experience associated with it for both of them.  Nonetheless then for the subsequent 30 years prosecuted multiple proxy wars around the world.  When we look at those three cardinal factors associated with the first Cold War is a deep stretch of definitional integrity to say that we’ve entered into a second Cold War.  However the caveat I’d attach to that is we could slide in that direction; in nuclear questions for example the Chinese are into a significant rebuild of its strategic rocket forces; it’s also revising internally its nuclear doctrine and whether it should abandon its historical position of non-first use.  Similarly, you see other questions concerning economic de-coupling of the type we’ve just discussed and whether that ultimately reduces what has been this enormous piece of insulation in the US China relationship, namely the economic engagement, begin to become thinner and thinner.  But as we’ve just discussed, that is not a done deal at this stage, it’s still very much a murky proposition.  And so far, we don’t see armed proxy wars in the Third World between China and the United States, but we do see competitive agendas on the question of aid for development, the Belt and Road initiative versus various American, Japanese and European alternatives.

Andrew Neil: You argue in your book The Avoidable War that China and America, of course they accept, they should accept that because they are strategic adversaries that they need to make clear what their red lines are, so that they don’t end up in military conflict by mistake or misunderstanding.  What would some of these red lines be?

Kevin Rudd: I argue in the book about what I call managed strategic competition.  At present we’ve got strategic competition between the US and China, that is the reality, whatever language is used in each capital to describe it, to which the prize is becoming frankly the dominant power regionally and globally; militarily, economically and technologically, that’s the race that’s on.  The problem with strategic competition now is that it is unmanaged, there are no guard rails, there are no rules of the road, and therefore the risk day to day of incident, escalation, crisis, conflict and war is ever present, and in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and across the Taiwan Straits the amount of metal flying around on a given day in terms of aircraft and naval ships and associated ships, is frankly mind boggling, and you begin to become concerned about the law of averages.  The alternative that I argue in the book is managed strategic competition, that rather than engaging in this imprecise business of push and shove that a more mature approach would be for the principals of both countries, foreign and defence, to sit down and to sort out, by which I mean communicate clearly to each side what the irreducible red lines are at an operational level.  Your question was what would that look like in practice.  In the book I seek to explain five sets of strategic red lines: East China Sea, South China Sea, Taiwan, Korean Peninsula, cyber and space.  For example, taking down another country’s power generation sector through massive cyber-attack would be regarded as crossing one such red line.  People often say that’s all fine and dandy, but could they actually trust each other to enforce them or to adhere to them.  I think the virtue of being openly clear with one another about one’s own national set of strategic red lines is that the other side then knows that if they violate them that there will be retaliatory action of one form or another.  At present there’s too much guess, push and shove, and on the balance of the logic I think clarity is far better than uncertainty.

Andrew Neil: Speaking of clarity, President Biden has now said three times in the past year that America would come to the aid of Taiwan if it was attacked by China; that would therefore seem to be one of his red lines.  It marks the end of what was called strategic ambiguity.  Is he right to do so?

Kevin Rudd: I think it is true that he has upped the ante, but where the strategic ambiguity once again takes over from the strategic clarity is what form of military assistance the United States would provide and under what circumstances, given there are multiple scenarios under which a Taiwan crisis could emerge.  For example, we often assume that a Taiwan crisis equals what those of us who have been looking at this for too many decades now, describe as the million-man swim across the Taiwan Straits.  That is the classical territorial D-Day type invasion.  A range of other scenarios could include, for example, China salami slicing Taiwan by beginning by taking some of Taiwan’s offshore islands.  The objective being to take them and then to frankly say to the Taiwanese and the Americans are you really serious about re-taking these islands, do you really want to risk a war in what for you would be strategically indefensible anyway.  So that’s one set of scenarios, another set of scenarios is do the Chinese move in the direction of a form of maritime blockade of the island?  So strategic ambiguity in my argument is still largely preserved because we do not know how and what form the Americans would react under those circumstances.  I think the reason Joe Biden did what he did and the language that he’s deployed is because on the back of what Russia did in Ukraine, the Chinese propaganda message to Taiwan has been very plain, it’s been look carefully Taiwan, the Americans didn’t deploy a single soldier on the ground in Ukraine to defend Ukrainian sovereignty against the Russians, nor will they do it for you in Taiwan, it’s better that you start accommodating to a more peaceful set of arrangements with Beijing.  It’s against that background I think that Joe Biden sought to allay Taiwanese domestic concerns.

Andrew Neil: It’s interesting what you tell us there about China’s public analysis of the situation in Ukraine and how that impacts in the East Pacific, are you saying therefore that Russia’s troubles in Ukraine have not necessarily given President Xi cause for caution when it comes to Taiwan?

Kevin Rudd: Certainly not as much cause for caution as I see alive in much of the more superficial analyses of China’s response to Russia over Ukraine.  You see at one level Xi Jinping has, together with the rest of the Chinese system, seen the Russia relationship as fundamentally strategically important for China for the long term.  It secures further the Russia China border, it frees China’s strategic resources to focus purely in one direction, namely against its regional and global strategic adversary the United States.  It also opens up whole new dimensions to the commodity trade on preferential Chinese terms between Russia and China, oil, natural gas, as well as agricultural commodities.  And beyond that again Russia has always acted as a useful strategic distraction device from China’s perspective in launching various initiatives of the security nature, whether it’s in Syria, Libya or now in Ukraine, which distracts the United States from the East Asian, West Pacific theatre where China seeks primarily to gain the upper hand against the United States.  For these underlying strategic and political reasons I think the Chinese system is reasonably well satisfied with where things have gone.

Andrew Neil: President Biden, when fighting the election against President Trump, decided he had to be seen to be as hawkish as Mr Trump on China during the campaign, but are you surprised that the Biden administration has remained just as hawkish towards China as President Trump?

Kevin Rudd: No, I’m not surprised, the balance of power between China and the United States has changed over the last decade; the United States militarily has been preoccupied with both the military folly that was Iraq, together with Afghanistan, and a series of preoccupations including Syria and the Middle East, during which time China using what it describes as “its period of strategic opportunity”, has in fact consolidated its hold on military and economic power.  And what the Chinese have done I think, if I read their literature carefully, is conclude over the course of the last decade that they are now in a much more advantageous position relative to the United States than they were at the beginning of the Xi Jinping period.  Which brings me to the second point of what’s changed structurally, is that Xi Jinping’s leadership is qualitatively vastly different from that of his predecessors.  Xi Jinping, encouraged by the change in the actual balance of power with the United States, but also turbocharged by his own particular leadership style, which is not that of the status quo, which is how can we take – my words, not his, intelligent risks to advance China’s interests and values in the region and the world and to extend China’s geopolitical footprint in the region and the world.  But the nature of Xi Jinping’s leadership has brought about this second change dynamic in the overall US China relationship.  So for those reasons and because the two countries are in a strategic competition, my own judgement was that the Democrats under Biden in terms of the nature of strategic competition would adopt the same overall framework as the Republicans, but unlike the Republicans under Trump, are seeking to be much more systematic about their execution of it, while still providing some room for non-lethal strategic competition and most critically, some room, for example, on climate change, on continued strategic collaboration with China.

Andrew Neil: Would it be accurate to describe American policy towards China as currently constituted as containment rather than conciliation?

Kevin Rudd: I don’t think either word actually describes what the United States is seeking to do.  The US administration is seeking to constrain China from areas where it sees China in its own judgement as operating outside the norms of international political and economic and security policy conduct, and to build consensus in international community against China when those violations occur as opposed to a complete containment of the Chinese power enterprise per se.

Andrew Neil: Should America now be moving – I use a Cold War analogy here, be moving towards a policy of détente with China as Nixon and Kissinger did with Russia in the Cold War from 1969 onwards?

Kevin Rudd: Of course the engine room of strategic red lines in adhering to them must always be effective deterrents and therefore the United States has a responsibility to ensure, for example, my one question that there is adequate deterrents in terms of its own military capabilities in East Asia and the West Pacific, and on the part of the Taiwanese themselves in onshore Taiwan to cause Xi Jinping’s military commanders to say to him when he asks the question, “Are we ready yet, the year is 2032?”, and the military commanders would say, “Dear chairman, I’m sorry but those pesky Americans and pesky Taiwanese continue to close the military gap and it’s too risky.”  That effectively is the essence of the deterrents at a military level which provides the ultimate stability around these strategic red lines which I referred to before.  I think however if we can reach the stage where through managed strategic competition we have the strategic red line/deterrents arrangements under control, where we have non-lethal strategic competition being advanced across the rest of security policy and foreign policy, trade, investment, technology policy, and ideology if you like and the great contest for ideas for what shapes the future of the international system, as well as a framework which enables levels of strategic cooperation on climate and global financial stability, but also the next set of global public health challenges.  That you then I think have a stabilising framework and both sides at the present in my judgement, at least for the decade ahead, are probably in the marketplace for a stabilising framework, and then that’s where I think the Cold War lessons of détente can then be unfolded.

Andrew Neil: We’ve talked about the continuity, elements of continuity in US policy during the switch from President Trump to President Biden; Australia now has a new Labour Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese.  He was your Deputy when you were Prime Minister I think; will there be the same continuity in Australian policy towards China?

Kevin Rudd: There is a high degree of bipartisan consensus in Australia as there is in fact currently in the United States on national China strategy.  I know Prime Minister Albanese very well, he’s a friend and a colleague of many years standing, and in all the decisions that we took during my period as Prime Minister in relation to China, many of which were quite tough and hard-line, he was part and parcel of that decision making process.  I think the overall characteristics of the new government on the China strategy will be to be clear with our Chinese friends, that Australia is a hundred-year-old ally of the United States going back to the Western Front in the First World War.  Secondly, that like the United States and the Europeans we are believers in the universality of human rights, and that nothing is going to turn our course on those questions.  That thirdly would like to maximise the economic relationship with Beijing in trade and investment terms, maximise our cooperation with Beijing and global decision making for, like the G20 on climate change and global financial stability and global pandemic management.  And I think the final element of the equation will be, unlike the Australian Conservatives, less of a predisposition to pull out the megaphone every second Tuesday morning and have a good old blast at Beijing, and then for Beijing to have a good old blast back.  And if we are going to part company with China on something significant and substantive, I think the predisposition in Canberra will be to do so in partnership with our friends and allies around the Indo-Pacific and around Europe rather than to act as a free-range chicken.

Andrew Neil: Mr Albanese came from the left of your party, but he won from the centre left, are there any lessons for Keir Starmer in his victory?

Kevin Rudd: I know enough about British electoral politics to know not to use public forums in the United Kingdom to provide gratuitous advice to political leaders about how they should conduct their domestic politics.  I think Keir Starmer, as I’ve observed it, has done a first-class job in holding Boris Johnson to account in basic accountability over pandemic management and let’s call it the ethical standards of government.  And on the policy front, as I understand Keir Starmer’s platform is one which also seeks, unlike his predecessor, to be one of open dialogue, engagement and discourse with British business.  That of course is necessary for any centre left government or any centre left party seeking to come into government.

Andrew Neil: Finally Kevin Rudd, Mr Albanese has appointed what I might call a Minster for Republicanism, is that back on the Australian agenda, and if so, what’s the likely timetable?

Kevin Rudd: Mr Albanese, like myself, is a lifelong Republican, but having said that we have never been as a political party in some crushing hurry to bring on the abolition of the Monarchy as a matter of national political urgency.  These things are much better done as political consensus emerges and builds over time rather than dividing the polity unnecessarily on those things.  I think there’s a further factor at play in the minds of all of us who come from the Australian Labour Party, and as a party we are committed to an Australian Republic and we have been for a very long time, and that’s that there is a deep affection, even on the part of the Australian Labour Party, towards Her Majesty, the Queen, and I don’t think anyone wishes to be offensive to our nana.  So I think there’s a bit of sentiment in the place which is we don’t want to be disrespectful to Her Maj.  But I think if trying to give you a sense of the sentiment in Australia it’s one of what I describe as a gradual shift over time and designed not to be offensive to Queen Elizabeth the Second and a desire to bring about constitutional change in Australia on the basis of national consensus, rather than huge national division.

Andrew Neil: Kevin Rudd, thank you very much.

Kevin Rudd: Thank you so much Andrew for having me on your programme.

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Andrew Neil, narrating: Tortoise members and subscribers to Tortoise Plus on Apple Podcasts can hear my reflections on that conversation in a bonus episode called Inside the Interview, which comes out every Friday during this series.

This episode was mixed by Studio Klong with original music by Tom Kinsella.

The executive producer of The Backstory is Lewis Vickers.

Thanks for listening.

Next in this file

Inside the Interview: Kevin Rudd

Inside the Interview: Kevin Rudd

In a bonus episode for Tortoise members, Andrew Neil reflects on his interview with the former Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd

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