Home International Australia’s Rudd harpooned by Japanese whalers

Australia’s Rudd harpooned by Japanese whalers


Sydney : Incoming national leaders are defined by how well they deal with their first crisis. John Howard, Kevin Rudd’s predecessor as Australian prime minister, won plaudits in 1996 for staring down opponents of gun control and ordering the world’s biggest gun buy-back after the Port Arthur massacre claimed 35 lives.

In 1997, new Prime Minister Tony Blair deeply impressed the British public by the deft way he coaxed Queen Elizabeth into giving a state funeral to Lady Diana Spencer, whom he famously called “The People’s Princess”.

Howard and Blair both went on to stay in office for more than 10 years.

Rudd is a week away from his first appearance in the Canberra Parliament as prime minister and he risks falling at his very first hurdle.

The 50-year-old former diplomat who has never held ministerial office has been branded a weak leader by not speaking up about Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean.

In fact, the normally irrepressible Rudd has failed to speak at all. Since Japanese whalers took two activists into custody, other ministers have had to do the talking.

Australian Benjamin Potts and Giles Lane from Britain are crewmembers of the Steve Irwin, owned by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which sailed to the Southern Ocean in December to try and disrupt the harpooning.

They are being held incommunicado aboard the Yushin Maru 2, which along with four other vessels left Japan in November with the intention of returning with 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales.

The opposition was quick to pounce.

Its environment spokesman Greg Hunt said Rudd was too busy watching cricket and hobnobbing with actors Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman to address the crisis.

“There’s no reason why Mr. Rudd shouldn’t finally pick up the phone and call the Japanese prime minister and do what heads of government do, which is speak to each other,” Hunt said.

The risk for Rudd is appearing a hypocrite. Before the November general election that swept Howard from office, Labor had talked tough.

Labor castigated the conservatives for not sending warships to patrol the whale sanctuary it had declared in the Southern Ocean.

The government’s environment spokesman Peter Garrett, who is now the minister, had claimed Howard was too fearful of risking relations with Japan.

Garrett, the former lead singer with Midnight Oil, was left to defend Hunt’s charge that the dispatch of the nowhere-to-be-seen Oceanic Viking, armed and with 30 customs officers on board, was just “domestic posturing” and that the unspoken hope was that it would fail to find the Japanese whalers.

“Our intention is to continue to have an overall holistic and fair-dinkum approach to opposing Japanese so-called scientific whaling,” Garrett waffled.

The hapless former rocker had no answer as to why the departure of the Oceanic Viking was delayed by over a week and why it had failed to find the Japanese when protesters aboard the Steve Irwin had been able to.

The Greens, Rudd’s allies in his landslide election win, alleged the new prime minister was all huff and puff.

“They wanted to come out heavy, to be seen to be doing something, and they have not followed through,” Greens member of parliament Rachel Siewert said.

Greenpeace had called on the government to send up a plane to pinpoint the location of the fleet, so its ship, the Esperanza, could begin harassing the Japanese.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which sent the Steve Irwin to find the Japanese fleet, was not only successful but also managed to put it to flight.

The hostage drama has provided further ammunition for an opposition that senses Rudd, like the Japanese whalers, is on the run. And this is even before his first formal day in office.