World News

Australian PM faces censure over Bush "G20" call

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd faced censure on Tuesday over accusations he was behind news reports about a phone call with U.S. President George W. Bush in which Bush appeared unaware of the G20 group of rich nations.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd speaks at a media announcement in Melbourne November 10, 2008. REUTERS/Mick Tsikas

Just days before traveling to Washington for a financial crisis summit called by Bush, Rudd used his parliamentary dominance to defeat rival accusations he or a senior adviser had painted the outgoing U.S. leader as a “fool.”

“The prime minister’s fingerprints are all over this. Every letter, every paragraph, is dripping with his DNA,” conservative opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull told lawmakers.

The White House has rejected accounts of a private phone call last month between Rudd and Bush, carried in The Australian newspaper.

Rudd has also denied Bush made the comments but the row could damage his center-left government’s relations with Washington, Australia’s closest and most important ally.

In the newspaper article, Bush is said to have asked Rudd: “What’s the G20?,” referring to the group of rich and emerging nations including China and Brazil.

Bush has called the group together for a meeting on the global financial crisis in Washington this week.

The U.S. ambassador to Australia and U.S. officials in Washington denied Bush had asked the question, as well as Australian accounts that Rudd was influential in Bush’s decision to call a G20 crisis gathering rather than a smaller group of rich nations.

Rudd faced two days of questioning in parliament and refused repeatedly to deny that he or his staff had leaked the content of the telephone conversation, which reportedly occurred on a night when Rudd was having dinner with The Australian’s editor.

Turnbull said the apparent indiscretion by Rudd or a top aide meant Australia would be viewed with distrust by other leaders at the upcoming financial crisis summit with Bush.

“(It was) an account so self-serving that it presented him as a diplomatic encyclopedia, a font of all knowledge, and the President of the United States, the chief executive of our greatest ally, as a fool,” Turnbull said.

Rudd has also refused to agree to a police probe into the security breach.

Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat with close China ties, has enjoyed record approval since his election a year ago, and has used his international experience to underpin his government’s handling of the global financial upheaval.

A closely watched Newspoll in The Australian on Tuesday said the bookish leader’s approval rating was at a near-record 65 percent.

Editing by Paul Tait