Howard’s achievements, Rudd’s promise


Colin Rubenstein

The Australian Jewish News, November 30, 2007

The new Rudd Government gives every indication of not only seeking to match, but if possible, even improve on the excellent record of the Howard Government in terms of both willingness to act on Jewish domestic concerns and also Australia’s support for Israel’s security and peacemaking efforts.

Domestically, for example, one weakness of the Howard Government has been the erosion of the highly successful model of Australian multiculturalism over the past two years (despite the welcome doubling of our immigration intake). This model does not, as many of its critics allege, mean “anything goes” or open the door for extremism or tribalisation, because it explicitly combines rights and tolerance with responsibilities and a requirement to adhere to the core democratic values of Australian society. Properly implemented, it is actually a key tool for marginalising extremists and limiting their influence and enhancing our social harmony. We should look to the Rudd Government to return multiculturalism and the responsibilities it entails to a central role in fostering Australian social cohesion.

Again, while the Howard Government has been very supportive with respect to Jewish day schools, it was somewhat slow to address the anomalous funding of four Jewish schools and the unique security burden of them all. The Rudd team’s promises to fix both problems, if fully implemented, will be welcome improvements.

To assess how the new Rudd Government is likely to change Australia’s relationship with Israel, we need to look at the declared views of Prime Minister-elect Rudd and his team, but also at the historical context.

Firstly, historically, despite some exceptions, Australian governments of both political persuasions have gone out of their way to cultivate positive Australia-Israel relations. This has been the historic norm. Secondly, that being said, the Howard Government has brought that relationship to new heights since 1996.

Howard, his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Treasurer Peter Costello have made Australia one of Israel’s closest and most consistent friends. This government has given Israel tremendous verbal support, articulated not only in speeches to the Jewish community, but also in the media. Howard and Downer publicly defended Israel’s action during the 2006 war with Hezbollah; repeatedly highlighted the ongoing problem of Arab rejectionism as the key obstacle to peacemaking; and repeatedly expressed admiration for Israel’s peace offers under Ehud Barak at Camp David and disappointment with the continuing Palestinian failure to reciprocate.

At the United Nations, Howard’s Australia fought to end institutional discrimination against Israel; played a leading role in the fight against the violent anti-Zionism mixed with antisemitism that marred the 2001 Durban “anti-racism” conference; voted to end funding for the series of permanent anti-Israeli bureaucracies built into the UN structure and actively lobbied others to do the same; and was willing to be in a small minority in promoting these reforms and opposing one-sided anti-Israel resolutions.

And it should not be forgotten that at the start of the 2003 war in Iraq, Australia primarily contributed elite Special Air Service (SAS) troops whose main role, successfully executed, was to penetrate behind Iraqi lines and prevent the launching of Scud missiles against Israel.

Foreign policy went almost unmentioned during this election campaign, and there is likely to be more continuity than major reversals in Australian foreign policy in general. Moreover, both Rudd and most of his key team members, as their public statements indicate, are committed and longstanding friends of Israel. There is every chance the new ALP government will work to maintain the uniquely close and supportive relations with Israel of the last 11 years, and Kevin Rudd himself fully intends to do this.

It is important to remember that Labor, during the Howard years, largely supported the government’s policies on the Middle East (as the Coalition will almost certainly support the ALP if it pursues the same supportive policies).

One area to be watched in this regard will be United Nations voting, where we hope Prime Minister-elect Rudd will make sure that Australia does not return to a pattern of European-style abstention on key votes, such as those on the security fence and the funding of anti-Israel bureaucracies within the UN (despite an earlier view that Australia should have abstained from the 2005 vote condemning the security barrier, which Australia courageously opposed).
On the other hand, because the ALP will likely make the UN a larger focus in Australian foreign policy, it has additional incentives to make UN reform a priority – including weakening its institutionalised biases against Israel. And this is certainly in Israel’s interest, as well as Australia’s.
Further, the suggestion by Kevin Rudd that Australia could play a leading role in international efforts to indict Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide is also promising. Pursuing such a legal avenue is an important additional diplomatic tool that can increase pressure on the Iranian regime when combined with other diplomatic measures, including especially increased economic sanctions.

In short, there is every reason to believe that the new Rudd Government will continue Australia’s tradition of a warm, supportive relationship with the Jewish community and Israel, and succeed in maintaining, perhaps even exceeding, the exceptional support and closeness that characterised the Howard era.

Dr. Colin Rubenstein is Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.