Howards end

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

Kevin Rudd leads Labour to a historic victory, unseating John Howard, the Liberal-National Prime Minister for 11 years.

in SingaporeJohn Howard, along

The meteoric rise of Kevin Rudd to the highest executive position in Australia and the graceful exit of long-serving Prime Minister John Howard at the same time may obscure three possible trends behind the scenes. And, at least one of these apparent trends may have foreign policy implications for Australia and its chief and long-time military ally, the United States.

In a sense, it is of course too soon after a historic win by the Australian Labour Party (ALP) in the federal elections on November 24 to be sure of these trends. However, the campaign themes and the poll outcome point to the emergence of some new realities, which can be traced to the politics and professional style of Rudd.

After taking over the ALP leadership less than a year ago at a time of no great political fortunes for the party, Rudd has captured the popular imagination in a way few others have accomplished. It has been an upward trajectory all the way so far; and his relative youth, compared with the ageing Howard, cannot explain away the poll result.

One of the enduring images of the campaign trail was Howards meticulous morning walks. Although he took those exercises seriously as a matter of daily routine, the slight suspicion of a choreographed display was somewhat unavoidable.

The ALP leader was under no physical or political compulsion to portray the image of a fit person. His style, for most part, was of the direct, look-the-people-in-the-eye kind. Long before the election was called, he hit the campaign trail for all practical purposes and with the single-minded objective of bringing about a change at Australias highest echelons.

Given his relative inexperience in politics less than a decade as a member of parliament and less than a year as the ALP leader, compared with Howards parliamentary career of more than three decades and a decade-plus prime ministerial innings Rudd relished being the young challenger.

Political commentators, too, were appreciative of this fact; and, as a result, some said he won the televised debate with Howard by simply not losing it.

In a sense, the campaign was all about the new leadership and fresh ideas that Rudd offered and Howards insistence that he would continue to provide the right leadership to meet Australias challenges in the 21st century.

On domestic policy, Rudds slate was full offers of an education revolution, fairness in industrial relations, governance in the interest of all Australians including the aborigines, and above all, a fair deal for all household economies. At one stage during the campaign, he even quipped that he would like to become an Education Prime Minister. Broadband connectivity and computers at educational institutions were talked about as the necessities of the future for Australias rightful place in the global order of the 21st century. The slight irony of such a prescription for a developed economy apart, the message was resonant, and that showed in the poll results.

Howard, in contrast, found it hard to address some grassroots economic and educational issues, if only because he could not say much that might have detracted from his own assertions about a booming economy. It was not easy for him to address the perceived mismatch between the macro-level robustness of the national economy and the problems that a number of households faced on matters of housing affordability, the general cost of living, and so on. Rudd was quick in seeing this duality of economic existence, insofar as it really hurt sections of the people. And, he appeared quicker in voicing such concerns of those who mattered in real life and in electoral politics.

Rudd won primarily on the strength of his overall political agenda. He never really tired of assuring an influential section of the voters about his basic conservative credentials in the economic domain. He could do this mainly because he had a narrow political space to cruise along, between the macro-level economy and the household sector.

Howard had sought to create a new industrial relations order in a way that left Australia divided. Fairness was Rudds answer to repeal or restructure the relevant laws so as to keep the economy ticking without giving rise to social unrest of whatever degree. His opponents, therefore, repeatedly accused him of wanting to pander to the trade unions. The images of an ideological class struggle of some kind were also sought to be raised in some anti-ALP quarters to warn the voters against opting for Rudd.

It was in this context that some political pundits in Australia and outside began comparing and contrasting Rudd with Tony Blair of the period of his ascendance on the British electoral scene over a decade ago. To this school of thought, Rudd now represented a new ALP, which would not scare away the fundamentalists of capitalism, and, in this respect, he was supposed to have drawn a leaf or two out of Blairs book of original electoral success.

On foreign policy issues, Howard took great pride in advertising his closeness to U.S. President George W. Bush. Having ordered Australian troops into Iraq and Afghanistan in support of the U.S. forces there, Howard refused to acknowledge any merit in the growing anti-war sentiments across Australia. While many observers saw this as an ostrich-like attitude that gave Rudd an easy opening for advocating a people-friendly agenda, Howard stuck to his guns, beyond the metaphor as it were, on the grounds that Australia could not desert its benefactor-ally, the U.S., in the global anti-terror war. It is against the background of such an interplay of issues that propelled Rudd to a phenomenal victory that the three possible behind-the-scene trends come into focus.

First, the elderly but intensely proactive Howard has been shown the door, despite his acknowledged success in facilitating and sustaining a macro-level economic boom across Australia during his stay at the helm for over 11 years. He called the latest poll when it was due and not as a snap decision, seeking a fifth consecutive term as Prime Minister. He had already earned the reputation of being the countrys longest-serving Prime Minister after Robert Menzies.

Howard often revelled in drawing upon cricketing analogies in his political discourse. Interestingly, he talked briefly about cricket after giving this correspondent a long interview at his parliamentary office in Canberra a few years ago. And, he and his compatriots are known to venerate their own Donald Bradman, the greatest cricket legend, to an extent beyond the ordinary. Not long ago, an Australian Test cricketer with a chance to overtake the great players highest score in an innings simply did not want to do that. Any such act was deemed to be disrespectful of Bradman. Now, is it possible the Australian voters did not want Howard to try for longevity as Prime Minister that was already the prerogative of Menzies?

Supporters of the

Howard himself had downplayed suggestions that he was eager to emulate Menzies, and, in any case, any such possibility was not indicated this time. Howard made a poll-eve commitment to hand over the Prime Ministers post, should he win it again, to his colleague and Australian Treasurer, Peter Costello, sometime well into that [new] tenure. Nonetheless, the Howard-sceptics there were many of them were unable to quite believe that such a transition would indeed occur or occur smoothly.

The Howard-Costello political tussle at one stage, during the formers fourth term as Prime Minister, was cited in support of such disbelief.

On the surface, Rudds supporters projected him as an alternative to not only Howard but also Costello. In a sense, the ALP line was that the country knew what Howard stood for but not necessarily what Costello might stand for. The point was that a vote for Howards Liberal-National coalition would be a vote for the unknown. Costellos record as the Treasurer for the entire duration of Howards stay at the helm was, in the process, seen in a different light and not as a success story in nurturing macro-economic Australia.

All this meant that Howards insatiable appetite for the highest office was seen as an electoral issue, at least in some quarters. Howards defeat as Prime Minister is, therefore, indicative of a possible trend towards reining in the political ambitions of a leader, notwithstanding his or her professional credentials for the top job.

The second possible trend has more to do with the changing nature of Australian society itself rather than the ambitions of politicians. Sensing this, Howard began saying, at a later stage of the campaign, that he would promise a definitive shift from a welfare state model to that of an opportunities society. Implicit was his argument that his policies had already created an optimal Australia that might now wish to wear new clothes. But he was also aware of the challenge from Rudd and his team on the issue of a new Australian identity as a multi-cultural society.

Rudds resolute efforts to turn the spotlight on the need for fairness in society, implicit in his focus on the jobs of ordinary Australians and the crying social-justice needs of the aborigines, marked the high point of the campaign. Rudds record in the end may be judged by the new identity that he can create for Australia as a live reality and not just as an image. Given the rout of the Liberal-National coalition, some commentators have already seen the possibility of Rudd trying to win one or more terms later on.

The realm of foreign policy is where the third possible trend is visible behind the scenes. Rudd is committed to pulling Australian troops out of the mess in Iraq through an honourable exit strategy. It is not so much a question of saving Australian lives and Canberras prestige in the Islamic world as it is a matter of finding a new balance in the old Australia-U.S. equation.

This was indicated, if only partially, by Rudd himself at his first press conference in Brisbane on November 25, just a day after his famous victory. Disclosing that he received a congratulatory telephone call from Bush, Rudd went on to say that he emphasised, during the conversation, the centrality of the U.S. alliance to our approach to our future foreign policy. Does this mean that Rudd will stay the course as a U.S. ally, but with his eyes and ears open and with a clear sense of a new and fair world order?

An area where he put himself out of step with the U.S. straight away related to climate change. He wants to ratify the Kyoto Protocol at the earliest.

On a different plane, Rudd, a former diplomat, has the unique advantage of knowing Mandarin. That apart, as a modern leader, he should be aware of the continuing rise of China as a factor of importance to any new world order. As the new leader of an Asia-Pacific country, he is expected to chart a foreign policy course that will keep the region in prime focus.

Issues of non-proliferation, human rights and counter-terrorism will continue to remain in focus on the global stage, and the balance he strikes in Australias ties with the U.S. may determine his policies towards China and even India, although these two did not figure in the list of three countries he mentioned at his first press conference as the Prime Minister-elect.

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