The Boar

The Boar interviews Kevin Rudd: Brexit, China and free speech

Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia and President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, spoke to Warwick students on Thursday 17 May.

In an event hosted by Warwick Economics Summit, Mr Rudd talked to students about the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the G20, and the rise of China in the global economy.

After his talk, The Boar spoke to Mr Rudd about Chinese politics, Brexit and his night at a strip club in New York.

Elliot Mulligan (The Boar): Why do you think it is important for students today to study Chinese politics and history?

If you’d like an interesting, internationally connected, well-paid job in the future, it’s going to massively increase your employability. It’s as basic as that. The reason I say that is simply because I don’t think the West has got its head around China’s scale. I first started visiting China in 1984, and in those days China’s economy was the size of Australia’s. Now it’s about the same size as the United States’. By the time you guys are wheeled into your retirement homes, it’ll be three times the size of the United States. Any field of endeavor that you are going to be engaged in, in universities or business or technology, the engagement with China will be comprehensive. Scale has been felt first in our region, now you’re encountering it in Europe.

Charles Collis (The Boar): Hillary Clinton recently warned Australia to be wary of Chinese interference in Australian politics. Is that something you’re worried about?

The bottom line is that we’re all western liberal democracies and China is not. Let’s be very blunt about that. Therefore, the Chinese government does not share our political values. Let’s be very blunt about that as well. However, China does not have a post-’78 history of interfering in anyone else’s political systems. But we’ve got to be very vigilant about where these values do not line up with each other. By that, I mean it’s really important that Western liberal democracies stand up for their own traditions of human rights and freedom. China has a radically different view driven by its own tradition and its Marxist-Leninist revolution. If there are problems with any individuals or any institutions, we already have a vast array of laws and law enforcement mechanisms to be able to deal with them – without people degenerating into froth, bubble and hysteria.

Here in the UK, one topic that has divided students is the role that free speech plays on university campuses. What are your thoughts?

I believe these are decisions that should be taken by individual local authorities. People can make mature decisions. If the University authorities form a view that a certain speaker’s actions are likely to give rise to violence, then I think they’ve got a responsibility to act. Whether we like it or not, there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech, in any country. There are laws of defamation and therefore, when it comes to violent hate speech, we need to be mindful of what can happen. Rather than upholding a universal principle, I think it should be up to universities. This country has been a bastion of free speech since before the French revolution. I think there’s a reasonable culture here about how you sustain reasonable levels of freedom of speech while not allowing people like Moseley in the 1930s to incite fascism.

What was your most memorable moment as a student?

This will sound very soppy and romantic but it’s where I met my wife.

No outrageous story of a night out gone wrong?

Well those are all already on the record. Including my night at Scores, a strip club in New York, when I was shadow foreign minister. My poll ratings went up 5 points after that. It was two months before the election when I became Prime Minister when the Tories dumped that story. They thought they had me. The Australian public clearly thought, “up until now, we just thought he was a really nice nerd. Now we know he’s one of us.”

Truth is on that occasion I wasn’t particularly proud of what I did, but I was completely smashed.

What do you really think about the monarchy?

I’m a Republican. Eventually there will be another referendum. The bottom line is that in Australia people, including myself, like the Queen. It’s like having your nan run the country. And nobody wants to offend your nan. But when she ceases to be the Queen, it may create a different environment in Australia.

How do you think that Brexit will affect the UK?

If I was a Brit and I’d have been voting in the referendum, I would have voted to remain. If I was an Australian in Britain, I’d have still voted remain. There seems to be a mistaken view in this country that ‘the old Commonwealth’ was desperate for Britain to leave the European Union to unite with its former colonies. That’s not our view at all. Most Australians like the fact that Britain’s in Europe and because we have a real affection for the United Kingdom, we actually see that as a better outcome for Britain’s future. When I meet various Tories around the UK who ask me, “isn’t it good to be back with the old crowd?”, my response is, “A. You told us back in 1970 to get lost, B. We did, we went and joined Asia, C. Mathematically, add Canada and Australia together and you get 60 million people versus the 360 million you’re about to leave in Europe. I don’t think that’s a good deal guys.”

But in terms of if it happens, I still hope it doesn’t, I think there’s still a whole lot of residual good will for Britain around the world and most of us feel a bit sad about it. Of course, we’ll do bilateral FTA’s (free trade agreements) with Britain and no one is going to try and do Britain in the eye. We’ll just have to make it work. As they say in South Park, “what do I think of the decision? Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb.”

What would you say drives you?

I think the beginning of wisdom is to know the following questions: What do you believe in? Why do you believe it? What do you want to do about it? What do you really like doing? Once you’ve sorted those questions out, work out in your mind what’s the best vehicle for doing all of the above.

For me, after a little reflection, it was a combination of public policy and then politics. I’m interested in, without sounding mushy about it, what you can do to improve the public good. I grew up poor, so I’m deeply interested in how you enable people who grew up poor, with no hope in life, to have at least an opportunity to have a decent start in life. Equality of opportunity.

Secondly, in my own part of the world, it’s can we have the wit about ourselves to carve out a common and peaceful prosperous relationship with a country that shares none of our political values, China. For me, these are the big questions, if you’re considering a political life. Because when the sh*t hits the fan, you end up in a dark place, when you’re demoted etc. Then you’ve got to return to your basic values. Intrinsically, before I ever heard the term social justice, I knew what that was.


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