Rudd keen to play the statesman

By Greg Ansley

PM hoping for an advantage over his untested opponent as focus turns to defence and international crises.

Kevin Rudd is out to bolster his status on international affairs. Photo / AP
Kevin Rudd is out to bolster his status on international affairs. Photo / AP

The Syrian crisis and plans to boost defence spending and shift elements of the navy to Queensland have driven national security to the centre of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's election campaign.

Rudd has been able to portray himself as dealing firmly with matters of grave international concern, speaking to US President Barak Obama, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and French President Francois Hollande as America decides whether to intervene in Syria.

The Opposition has remained silent on Syria, but has attacked his naval plans as politically driven and criticised Labor for allowing defence spending to fall to its lowest level since 1938 (adjusted to today's terms).

Although there are few votes in defence, national security forms part of the basket of issues shaping voters' perceptions of rival leaders. Rudd can use it to bolster his status on international affairs and sharpen his image as more prime ministerial than the untested Opposition leader, Tony Abbott.

With polls still pointing to defeat on September 7, the Government needs any help it can get.

Rudd said yesterday that Australian military and diplomatic officials were working on Syrian options with US counterparts. He said it was "patently clear" that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians in Damascus.

"In the hindsight of history I do not want to be in a position of responsible political leadership where I was party to turning a blind eye, and I won't," Rudd said.

"History will judge us all on the decisions we make today, just as it judged us harshly, and rightly so, on Srebrenica, and just as it judged us also on Rwanda."

The world stood by as more than 500,000 Tutsis were killed by rival Hutus in 1994, and as Serbian forces slaughtered 8000 Bosnian Muslims the following year.

Rudd also announced plans to set up a taskforce to decide whether the navy should shift north.

He said this could mean moving all or part of the big east coast fleet base at Sydney's Garden Island to Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville, shifting ships to cover the northern approaches and to be closer to potential regional flashpoints.

Last year's force posture review recommended a long-term shift from Garden Island, with new facilities needed for three air warfare destroyers now being built and the two aircraft carrier-sized amphibious warfare ships due to enter service in several years.

Rudd also said the move would enable Australia to work more closely with the US and other allies, a position that has been criticised by China.

The US has a rotating task force of 250 marines in the Northern Territory, planned to expand to 2500 within three years. It may link this with a new amphibious lift group.

Australia at present spends about A$25 billion ($28.7 billion) a year on defence.

- NZ Herald

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