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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008

Starting with Kyoto, Rudd aims high


LOS ANGELES — Before too much time goes by, maybe somebody ought to take note of the smart political stuff coming out of Australia lately.

The new prime minister there is off to some start. Elected last November, but actually in office only since January, Kevin Rudd looks to be something of a super-sharp Tony Blair type — but without all the America-fawning that, in the final analysis, was so fatal to the former British prime minister.

In short order Rudd — almost two decades younger than his rival-party predecessor John Howard, prime minister for 11 years — has started to put his own imprint on Australia's marquee political values.

The leader of the country's Labor Party has sought to set straight the country's American-Indian style history with its indigenous population. The prime minister has formally apologized for the mistreatment of its aborigines. Such an apology was urged on Howard but persistently rebuffed. By contrast, Rudd all but rushed to set the matter straight.

Decisiveness and intellectual clarity would appear to be among the new prime minister's traits. In the matter of Australia's failure to sign the controversial Kyoto climate protocol, that, too, is now history. The Rudd government signed it on day one. Deeply flawed as it is, Kyoto symbolically stood alone as the most prominent, singular statement of unified international consensus on the massive issue of climate deterioration.

"This is the first official act of the new Australian government, demonstrating my government's commitment to tackling climate change," Rudd said. Only the United States, among the world's wealthy nations, has now not signed on. Thus the Rudd move gives hope that by this time next year, with a new U.S. administration in power, maybe the last of the environmental Neanderthals will fall and Washington will join the human race in environmental protection.

And, just the other day, Australia put a package of troops and police on a naval frigate and set them sailing for troubled East Timor. There the president was seriously injured in an assassination attempt; the prime minister, in a separate incident, escaped without serious injury.

The coordinated attacks rocked the impoverished, independent nation, which severed itself from giant Indonesia more than five years ago. The East Timor government asked for the help, and Australia, of course, did not flinch from reacting with immediate assistance.

Already, Rudd has been making an important and sincere effort to clarify the strategy and tactics of the "war on terror." The new government in Canberra has raised embarrassing but necessary questions about the level of NATO troop commitment in Afghanistan.

That level seems considerably less than adequate to the task, assuming one believes in the salience of a military solution, and Australia appears to be taking the view that it will not alone increase its troop commitment but requires a fuller participation of all members of the antiterror team.

That tack sounds entirely sensible. The prior Howard government might have raised similar issues, but probably not as publicly as this new one. The former placed such a high priority on Australian-U.S. relations that sometimes it was hard to know where Australia's national interests ended and America's began.

Sometimes the overlap seemed so complete as to make Down Under seem more like just subserviently under.

America needs allies that are the sort of true friends that don't mince words when they think their pal Uncle Sam is about to make a fool of himself and go off the deep end. For reasons of history and political commonality, Australia is almost certain to remain in the Western camp. But its own national interests require it to stay in good stead with China and, of course, Japan and the European Union. Coming from the mild leftwing of his party, Rudd should have less trouble keeping the balance than his more conservative predecessor.

Asia is full of growing and grown giants. Australia, with scarcely more than 20 million people, is not one of them.

China at 1.3 billion, India at 1 billion-plus and even Indonesia at 230 million (mostly Muslim) seem destined to play the elephantine roles in the region.

But sheer numbers aren't necessarily everything. Asians would be foolish to disregard Australia as some washed-up figurine of the past. Surely its booming economy today belies that notion. What's more, some good plain old Aussie common sense could do wonders for the region, especially in large dollops.

The breeze from Canberra right now is refreshing and bracing. Amid all the troubles in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Australia is a story that needs not to be lost amid the gloom and doom. Indeed, from the land of "G'day," we would seem, in fact, to be getting something of a new day. And so we say cheers to that.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran author and journalist. Copyright 2008 Tom Plate


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