Kevin Rudd warns risk of war in our region is ‘not a theory’ as portrait unveiled

Kevin Rudd warns risk of war in our region is ‘not a theory’ as portrait unveiled

August 10, 2023

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Former prime minister Kevin Rudd has warned there is a serious risk of war breaking out in the Indo-Pacific and avoiding a catastrophic conflict in Australia’s region will require skillful judgment by today’s political leaders.

Rudd, who delivered the landmark 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations, also urged Australians to resist fearmongering about the consequences of establishing an Indigenous Voice to parliament in a sweeping speech at the unveiling of his official prime ministerial portrait.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd during the unveiling of his official portrait by Ralph Heimans (left), at Parliament House in Canberra. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

The playful and pensive painting by renowned artist Ralph Heimans, who has also painted King Charles III and the late Queen Elizabeth II, shows the nation’s current ambassador to the United States working at his Sunshine Coast home, surrounded by books and his collection of Chinese crockery.

Unusually for such a formal commission, the portrait also features Rudd’s cat Louie.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese spoke at the event at Parliament House, which was attended by an array of current and former Labor MPs, public servants and a delegation of visiting US congresspeople.

After reflecting on the difficulties he encountered as prime minister, including the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, Rudd said he believed Albanese faced a harder task because of three “enormous structural factors”: great power competition in the Indo-Pacific, climate change and the rapid rise of artificial intelligence.

“We are in a region with a risk of crisis, conflict and war is real – not a theory, it’s a real threat,” said Rudd, who last year published a book outlining his strategy to avoid a war between the US and China.

“This requires our democracies to navigate our security circumstances with a level of care, intention, foresight, and with hard decisions to be made that require acute management and leadership by our leaders here in this parliament, in this government.”

Standing in the members’ hall of Parliament House, Rudd described democracy as a “delicate flower” that must be carefully nurtured because raw politics “can devour all in its way unless we are careful”.

Rudd, who previously campaigned for a royal commission into the power of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, said it was vital that voters are “drawing on a free flow of unbiased information, with facts separated from opinion, and where people can distil their own judgments about which course they want for the country’s future”.

“Nurturing all of that actively, not passively, is what we now must do because the democratic project around the world is under threat, it’s under challenge,” he said.

“And our global democratic project in so many countries is in regress, not progress.”

After saying it was not his place to “wade into the politics” of the Voice to parliament referendum, Rudd said: “Fears were raised 15 years ago about why we should not do this thing called the apology. Other fears are being raised today. I would simply ask Australians to reflect on the fundamentals about whether those fears are well-founded or not.”

Rudd said doubters had warned the apology would “unleash this torrent of litigation from Indigenous communities across the country, that it would, in fact, set the process of reconciliation backwards, not forwards”.

“We proved them wrong,” he said.

Albanese made a similar point in his speech, noting that the apology had been the subject of intense debate before Rudd delivered his historic address.

“It was said that it would result in division, that would result in reparations, that it would be a moment of division,” he said.

“Instead, what it was, was a moment of national unity.”

Describing Rudd as a close friend and confidante, Albanese said: “I say to Kevin, we are grateful for all of your service to Australia, we are grateful that your service continues and you can be proud that everyone who visits this building, including future generations, will be able to look at this portrait and your place in our nation’s history.”

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd with wife Thérèse Rein during the unveiling of his official portrait.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Rudd said he had delayed posing for his official portrait for so long that the directors of the parliamentary art collection became exasperated and threatened to commission a “knock-up” portrait based on a photograph.

“And if you’ve seen my official photograph, that’s not something of which you’d be proud,” he said. “And so vanity ultimately prevailed and I decided to yield to having an official portrait done.”

Rudd is the 28th prime minister to have an official portrait painted, with Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard being the most recent former leaders to have their likeness put on display in Parliament House.

Heimans said the portrait process began in 2019, before being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said, after much deliberation, he decided to portray Rudd as “a man who was in the process of still developing his legacy”.

“He’s continuously at work; I wanted it to be like you interrupted him at home,” Heimans said.

“There are many layers [to the portrait], as there are of Kevin.”

Adding that every detail in the painting was chosen for a reason, he said: “The secret to a great portrait is a sense of mystery.”

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