Australian Milestone

By September 26, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

SYDNEY, Sept. 26 (UPI) — Australians pride themselves on being independent, fair-minded, rugged and tough.

Former Attorney General Philip Ruddock celebrated 35 years in Parliament last Friday. He is such a man. So is former Prime Minister John Howard. Kevin Rudd, Howard’s successor, is a fluent Mandarin speaker. He is tough, but has a more Grey Poupon style. The same can be said about Malcolm Turnbull; very much self-made and a fellow Oxfordian — he is the newly elected leader of the Liberal Party. Both are nearly 20 years younger than the Ruddock/Howard generation.

I met Ruddock when he was Australian minister for immigration in 2002. He was visiting Prague and managed to leave just as epochal floods were engulfing the city. We had the opportunity to interact further at a small dinner co-hosted by the Prague Society and Australian Ambassador Margaret Anderson in the fabulous Bellevue restaurant overlooking the Vltava River.

Ruddock spoke of Australia’s need for more immigrants; Australian birth rates were simply not going to cover it. For a man with a law-and-order reputation, I found his comments genuine and sympathetic. He also spoke of refugees, of his membership in Amnesty International, of China, Japan, North Korea and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation region.

Over the years Phil and I have become friends. He has been the most misunderstood political figure in recent Australian history. The press sometimes has presented him as the “Darth Vader” of Australian politics. One could almost laugh at this comparison if the public and Birkenstock-blogs were not stupid enough to buy into this rubbish. It was and is abjectly wrong — and I do mean WRONG!

Philip Ruddock has spent 35 years of his life looking out for Australian interests. When tough decisions had to be made, he was there. In any government, there is always someone who is perceived as the bad guy. In this case that person is in fact genuine, fair and forthright and the one looking out for the interests of the country. He not only made difficult decisions — he stood by them like a rock in the storm. Others did, and would, flail in the wind.

Phil took on a role in the Global Panel Foundation and Global Panel America Advisory boards. He could not serve on the board, but he always made time to be present. And sometimes he could only arrive to have a coffee, greet the other board members and apologize. But frankly, those were rare occasions, because mostly he came, stayed, listened and contributed.

In political life, many people talk the talk, only to fall short in their actions. Phil talks little, and does much. And, mostly remarkably, and all the board members — and they were, after all ambassadors, a premier, a general and several CEOs — would regularly comment, “Attorney General Ruddock is remarkable.” “How did you do it?” they would ask me. “I didn’t do anything but tell him about our work. It is about him; his work ethic; his honesty.” Even those to the left, after meeting Phil, mostly would be impressed by him. Said one leftist activist to me, “I cannot believe how different he is in person.”

I agree.

Malcolm Turnbull, whom I have known for several years now, took on the political establishment in his riding of Wentworth several years ago in a by-election and went on to win a seat in Parliament. Prime Minister Howard soon made him parliamentary secretary for water and environment. A year later he became the minister. Some were jealous of his ascent, but Howard recognized a “doer” when he saw one.

Turnbull is a republican — that is, in favor of Australia becoming a republic and not having Queen Elizabeth as head of state — albeit through a governor general selected by the Australian prime minister. Howard was satisfied with the current status quo. Malcolm first came to public light during a referendum some years ago as the leader of the push for a constitution defining Australia as a republic. Trust me, I often have difficulty as a U.S. citizen understanding the subtleties, but in Australia this is an issue of heart and soul — people are passionately in favor or passionately against.

Last year, after Howard’s defeat at the polls, Turnbull stood as leader of the Liberals, the conservative party in Australia. He lost by four votes to former Defense Minister Brendon Nelson. Two weeks ago Nelson called a snap leadership contest. Nelson had been feeling the political heat. His gamble misfired, and Turnbull was elected leader of the opposition — by three votes.

Turnbull is the essence of self-made. He is business savvy. He is a bit more Sydney and a lot less Outback. He is trusted, if difficult — but always tells you how he sees it. Many see him as a future prime minister. Certainly, they see him as a worthy challenger to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who hails from Brisbane.

Rudd is also the product of a political coup. He had stood two years ago in a leadership fight against Labor leader and former Defense Minister Kim Beasley. He won by a few votes, and soon inherited the mantle for his run for prime minister. I met Rudd when he was opposition leader.

Rudd’s first act was to sign the Kyoto Protocol, something Howard had refused. His second was to apologize to the Aboriginal people for years of abuse and racism. Howard also had refused this. Either way, he is liked by his backers and enjoys high ratings. Insiders find Rudd to be a micromanager. He also has a monumental temper.

Australia’s 20 million citizens can be proud of their political leaders. From Minister of State John Faulkner to Parliamentary Secretary Laurie Ferguson; from former Howard Chief of Staff Arthur Sinodinos to former Premier Bob Carr — and, of course, John Howard himself — these men have proven their muster.

Australia has a new generation of political leaders. They are indeed up to the task.

I have special respect for Phillip Ruddock. So should his fellow Australians.

UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He is a vice chairman of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.