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Australia’s New Order

13 minute read
Elizabeth Keenan

The last time Labor partied quite this hard was in 1972, when Gough Whitlam swept it back to power after 23 years in the federal sin bin. On Saturday night the Labor faithful were again in raptures as they cheered the party’s new savior, Kevin Rudd, and the end of John Howard’s long run as Prime Minister. Best keep the ecstasy to a minimum, Rudd jokingly advised a crowd of several hundred campaign workers in Brisbane: just “have a strong cup of tea.” But the beer cans went on opening. “Eleven and a half yearsh,” people kept saying, happily slurring the s. “Eleven and a half years is just too long.”

“It’s time,” had been Whitlam’s message; time for change. Rudd updated the sentiment. “Today Australia has looked to the future,” he told air-punching supporters and TV viewers around the country. “Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward.”

For all the excitement, Labor’s triumph seemed somehow old news, a foregone conclusion. Thanks to opinion polls, Australians had expected a Rudd victory for almost a year — and bet more than $7 million on the hunch. Since last December, when a demoralized Labor Party elected the former diplomat and bureaucrat as its sixth leader in a decade, not a single national opinion poll — and by election day there’d been more than 100 — had put Howard’s conservatives in the lead. “Throughout the year I have had a fairly gloomy view of our prospects,” conceded former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

Yet predictable as the election seemed, few were prepared for the scale of the government’s defeat. Labor had to capture 16 Coalition seats to win; at press time it had taken 24, with the outcome in five seats still in doubt. More shocking for the Coalition, Howard was hanging on by his fingernails to his northwestern Sydney seat of Bennelong — and appeared set to become the first Prime Minister since 1929 to be turned out of his own electorate.

A year ago, however, few but the fiercest Labor partisans thought any kind of victory was possible. The party was in shambles, limping from opinion-poll rubbishing to new leadership ballot and back again, and desperate enough to bet the house on a man who seemed to many a most unlikely Labor leader. At 49, Rudd was not only young but inexperienced: he’d been in Parliament for just eight years and shadow Foreign Minister for less than five. He was an active Christian in a resolutely secular party, and said the machinations of Labor’s factional power-brokers “revolted” him. Known as Pixie for his fresh looks, and Dr Death for his cold stare of disapproval, Rudd was said to have few friends in Canberra. Former Labor leaders Paul Keating and Mark Latham described him, respectively, as “a menace” and “a terrible piece of work.” But by picking left-winger Julia Gillard as his deputy, he won over the factions — and got the leadership. He started campaigning the same day. Labor’s poll numbers jumped from the low 40s to the high 50s; within three months Rudd led Howard as preferred P.M. By the time the election was called, in October, Howard was staring Dr Death in the face.

Into the spotlight
Surprising as Rudd’s popularity was to the Coalition, it was even more so to some of his Labor colleagues. Prissy, bookish, and married to a multimillionaire businesswoman, he wasn’t exactly everyone’s picture of the Aussie working-class man, though he lost few opportunities to remind people he’d grown up on a Queensland farm. “If he grew up in poverty in rural Queensland,” sneered former Labor leader Latham, “where did the posh accent come from?” Advising Rudd to “take the piss” out of himself, his brother Greg reportedly said: “You’re just not that sort of personality where people want to spend time with you outside a work issue.” But he was a hard worker, and he worked as hard at popularity as on policies.

Other Labor leaders had been popular, though — and they’d always self-destructed come election day. Besides, Australians had no apparent reason to reject the Howard government, which had made stability and prosperity seem like the country’s natural condition. It’s now in its 16th consecutive year of economic expansion, with GDP growing at over 3% a year and exports at 10%. Unemployment and interest rates are the lowest since the 1970s. Listening to Howard’s concession speech Saturday night, former Liberal Senator Michael Baume said: “This is the first defeat of a government in decades where there was no evident anger or public rage.”

There was, however, ennui. Many Australians were bored with Howard, uneasy at the prospect of his handover to Treasurer Peter Costello, which the P.M. had been postponing since 2001, and mistrustful of new labor laws that made wage negotiations individual rather than collective affairs. Many voters, too, bridled at the government’s tendency to treat politics as a branch of economics. They wanted a sense that politics was about other things, too.

Rudd’s public-relations people took polls and held focus groups and told him what those things appeared to be: vision and hope for the future. Former P.M. Keating thought Rudd was too poll-driven, a captive of advisors who “won’t get out of bed in the morning unless they’ve had a focus group report to tell them which side to get out on.” But the polling helped Rudd focus, relentlessly, on offering voters what they yearned for: a government as conservative as Howard’s, only with a fresher face and a more inclusive smile. A government that cared, in the financial sense, about public hospitals and schools, and the frustrations of a too-slow Internet connection. A government that would help them atone for their coal-powered prosperity by ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

Rudd, youthful, blond and inoffensive, understood. None of the good stuff would change, he told voters — the economy least of all. “I am an economic conservative,” he said. “Always have been. Always will be.” He may be the first Labor leader in Australia’s history to have scolded a conservative government for engaging in a “reckless spendathon.” A Rudd government would be tightfisted with taxpayers’ money, Rudd seemed to say, but open-handed too. “We have a bit of compassion,” he said. “We would actually like to get out there and help people while still keeping the economy strong.” Rudd never out-rated Howard as better economic manager, but polls showed that nearly half of voters thought the economy would be fine no matter which party was in power.

Labor no longer talks much about its founding principles. “The struggle of the working class against the excesses, injustices and inequalities of capitalism” doesn’t strike much of a chord in a country where there are more self-employed workers than union members and more than 55% of adults own shares. Rudd gave the impression that under him, Labor would be as un-Labor-like as it could be without becoming the Liberal Party. The only revolution he was about to start was an educational one, and it didn’t mean overthrowing the teacher class. It meant upgrading trades training and providing senior students with computers and Internet access. “I am not a socialist. I have never been a socialist and I never will be a socialist,” said Rudd, who had previously described himself as “an old-fashioned Christian socialist.” Is Labor still a party of the left? a TV interviewer asked Rudd. “The economy is basic to everything,” he replied. Is Labor a party of the left? “It’s all about an education revolution,” Rudd said. But is Labor a party of the left? It is, Rudd conceded, “a part of progressive politics.” “I’m not interested in arid debates about left, right, center, up, down,” explained the Anglican Rudd, who’d converted from Catholicism but had not yet, he said, “resigned from Rome.” “As a Christian,” he said, “I don’t believe denomination is really that relevant.”

New direction
As a Diplomat, Rudd spent eight years in Beijing; he makes much of his ability to speak Mandarin. Perhaps coincidentally, his approach to Labor doctrine resembled an Australian version of Deng Xiaoping Theory. Whether an ideology is “surnamed capitalist or surnamed socialist” is immaterial, the late Chinese leader declared. Socialism is “whatever increases the comprehensive strength of the nation.”

Rudd embraced conservative policies with an ease that shocked Labor stalwarts. He supported the government’s bill restricting marriage to one man and one woman; its intervention into dysfunctional Aboriginal communities; its sale of the final one-third of telecommunications firm Telstra; its takeover of the Murray-Darling basin; its use of antiterrorism laws to expel visiting doctor Mohamed Haneef, suspected of complicity in a British bomb plot. A scornful Bob Brown, leader of the Greens Party, continued the list. “Labor and the Coalition are exactly the same,” he said, “on logging native forests, exporting more uranium, increasing coal mining and approving the Gunns pulp mill” in Tasmania. Cartoonists began drawing Rudd as a smaller version of Howard. Sydney student Hugh Atkin posted a video clip on YouTube depicting Rudd as China’s Chairman Mao: “He unnerve decrepit Howard by deploying clever principle of ‘similar difference’,” the subtitles read.

Rudd does have “fundamental differences” from Howard, he insists: one of his first acts as P.M. will be to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. He’ll also withdraw Australian troops from Iraq and cancel the WorkChoices laws. But the first two items are largely symbolic. Though Howard kept Australia outside the Kyoto regime, it has already met its emissions targets. And on the question of a post-2012 successor treaty to Kyoto, Rudd in mid-campaign abruptly took the Howard position: no ratification of Kyoto II unless it requires China and India to limit their carbon emissions. On Iraq, Rudd has moderated Labor’s earlier “immediate pull-out” policy. He says he will begin negotiations with the U.S. and Iraq on a staged withdrawal of 500 combat troops — one-third of the total deployment there — to take place over the next seven months.

Rudd was accused of “me too-ism,” but a more accurate term might have been “me-me-ism.” The election wasn’t about Labor vs. the Coalition. It wasn’t about socialism vs. free-market liberalism. It was about Rudd the new leader, who had a MySpace page with thousands of registered friends, vs. Howard the old leader, who was, well, old. Rudd was all over the new media; he talked often of his plan to roll out a national high-speed broadband network. The self-described “big fan of baroque” went on FM rock radio, said he’d had his Web site “pimped,” and managed to laugh at the YouTube clip of himself in Parliament digging in his ear and nibbling on the wax. Kids called him the Ruddinator and the Rudd-meister, and mobbed him like a rock star when he visited schools. His support among 18-to-34 year olds (who make up more than 1 in 4 voters) zoomed to 57%. In the campaign’s final week Rudd appeared on the comedy chat show Rove, where he said he was sure he would knock Howard down in a bar fight.

On the ropes
Howard, meanwhile, was losing his punch. In October, he abruptly announced that he would hold a referendum on amending the Constitution to recognize Aboriginal people. It was his “generation” that had prevented his seeing the need for this sooner, he said. He talked more about climate change and went ahead with preparations for a carbon emissions trading scheme. He said future and plan more often. He started wearing a more stylish tracksuit on his morning walks. In the final week of the campaign he did an old-married-couple interview with Treasurer Costello, explaining how the succession would go. Howard would resign, he said, Costello would stand unopposed, “and everybody will sort of say, Right-o.”

It didn’t go quite that way. With his seat looking lost to Labor, on Saturday night Howard congratulated Rudd, thanked sobbing supporters and said, “There is no prouder job in the world that anyone can occupy than being P.M. of this country.” He said he took “full responsibility” for the Coalition’s defeat. On Sunday, Costello made the surprise announcement that he would not stand for party leadership and would quit politics at the end of his term. The double knockout was a reminder that for the conservatives this election is not just a single defeat; it means a coast-to-coast wipeout. Labor now runs not just the federal government but every Australian state and territory. Howard has not only fallen short of his ambition to match Liberal Party icon Sir Robert Menzies’ record time as P.M.; he may also be blamed for the shipwreck of Menzies’ party.

Rudd said his team would start work at once on implementing Labor’s program. He also vowed to break with party tradition and appoint all ministers himself rather than have them selected in factional horse-trading. But while Labor and the trade unions — which poured more than $30 million into his campaign — are now in Rudd’s debt for saving them from oblivion, there are doubts that he’ll be able to hold off the factional bosses who run the party’s federal Caucus. Laborites who think the unions have too much influence in the Caucus may not be consoled by the fact that newly elected M.P.s Greg Combet, former secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and Bill Shorten, former secretary of the Australian Workers Union, are slated to become ministers.

First on Rudd’s list after ratifying Kyoto is to start rolling back the WorkChoices laws. Howard said that if these laws were reversed, no Liberal government would ever again attempt serious industrial-relations reform. But Rudd’s program could be slowed by the Senate, which the Coalition will control for the next seven months. After July next year, it appears that Greens and Independents will hold the balance of power. Labor won many of its lower-house seats with Green preferences, and the Greens are much further to the left than Rudd. Greens Senator Kerry Nettle warned before the election that “We will be the hand on the shoulder of Kevin Rudd,” but said “we will not block changes that head in the right direction.”

On foreign policy, Rudd is expected to stick largely to Howard’s way. Australia will remain a “rock solid” friend of the U.S. but reserve the right to act “independently.” It will be more deferential to the U.N., and may also be more alert to the sensitivities of China. Rudd has criticized Beijing’s human-rights record, but when the Howard government advocated an alliance between Australia, the U.S., Japan and India, he rejected the idea, saying it would make China feel encircled.

As Rudd left the stage in triumph Saturday night, some in the audience wondered whether he will maintain his Howard-like campaign face or become more Labor-like. The party’s “true believers” hope, along with political commentator Robert Manne, that “when he gets into government, then we’ll begin to see the differences again.” Voters who swung to Labor only after Rudd moved toward the center may be praying those differences stay small.

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