The eyes of the world will be on Sydney next month, and as that’s where I am at the moment, I can tell you we are expecting the city to be under siege.
The government is erecting a 5-km-long, 2.8-meter-high “rabble-proof fence” in the CBD (Central Business District, what Americans refer to as “downtown”), and on Friday, Sept. 7, Sydney’s schools will be closed down. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, 22 law-enforcing Labradors will be out a-sniffing, hospitality staff in the CBD will be subject to stringent security checks, and even Google has obligingly fuzzed out its online maps of downtown Sydney to help thwart potential intruders. But if you don’t like the fuss, you can get away from it all on a special Air New Zealand “Escape APEC” flight.
On Sept. 5, U.S. President George W. Bush hits town, followed by the leaders of participating nations in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, 2007. Hu Jintao from China will be here, as will Vladimir Putin of Russia. Hu is riding high on China’s growth-rate curve, and a revitalized and bolshie Putin is cooking with plenty of gas.
But the administrations of three major participants — those of Bush, Shinzo Abe of Japan and host Prime Minister John Howard — have seen better days. Indeed, the indications are that they are all on their way out. Hence scenic Sydney Harbour is set to be the backdrop for this APEC summit that may justifiably be called “The Conference of Lame Ducks.”
The lamest of these three ducks is surely Howard. After all, Bush will be in office until Jan. 2009, and Abe will probably hang on for a while because no one else in his ruling party will touch the job with a 10-foot chopstick. But an election is looming in Australia in October or November, and if the polls are to be believed, after 11 years in power, Howard’s arch-conservative coalition government will be roundly defeated by the Australian Labor Party (ALP). In fact, the polls can usually be believed in Australia, which has a system of compulsory voting. In most other democracies, many people who proffer an opinion to the pollsters do not actually vote. Here, you get fined if you don’t.
Striking similarities with today
This upcoming election is proving to be one of those watershed events that come only once in a generation. The last time Australia had an election as defining as this one was in December 1972 — and the similarities with today are striking.
Back then, the conservatives had been in power for 23 years, and Gough Whitlam’s opposition Labor Party ran on the slogan, “It’s time.” Conservative governments in the 1960s had pushed Australia into an unpopular and unjust war in Vietnam, and Howard has done the same with regard to Iraq, ever eager to be the sycophantic panter at Bush’s tush along with his blue-heeler, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
The Howard government’s record over the past 11 years has been remarkable for its broad attack on Australia’s educational and welfare institutions. In addition, Howard’s reactionary industrial relations legislation has significantly widened the rich-poor gap in this aspirationally egalitarian society. Meanwhile, tertiary education is now in dire straits as a result of funding cuts over the past decade — but this doesn’t seem to worry the ruling coalition, whose cherished notion of Australia is as a nation of quarry diggers for clever neighbors in the North such as India, China, Japan and South Korea.
But the most telling similarity between the 1972 election and the upcoming one lies in the personality of the leaders of the Labor Party then and now. Gough Whitlam was an intellectual who wanted, in the 1970s, to turn Australia from the “lucky country” (thanks to its wealth of natural resources) into the “clever country.” The leader of today’s opposition Labor Party, Kevin Rudd, is a man of the very same mettle. A Chinese studies graduate of the Australian National University, Rudd — if he becomes the next prime minister — will probably be the only leader of a Western democracy proficient in Mandarin.
Rudd spent seven years in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, some of it as a diplomat in Scandinavia and China. Though committed to the reinvigoration of Australia’s impressive welfare and educational institutions, he is a fiscal conservative and a committed Christian to boot. As such, he steals some thunder from those rightwingers on high, such as Minister for Health and Ageing Tony Abbott, Defense Minister Brendan Nelsen and Attorney General Philip Ruddock, who have stifled compassion and impeded social progress in Australia for more than a decade with a right-to-rule, noblesse oblige arrogance.
Every indication is that Rudd will continue to give high priority, without the current hand-wringing obsequiousness, to Australia’s relationship with the United States. According to Robert Macklin’s recent book, “Kevin Rudd, The Biography” (Penguin, 2007), Rudd has been a key member of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue from its inauguration in 1993. The AALD is an influential think-tank of politicians from both sides of the Pacific that meets annually to define and rework the tie.
Nicholas Stuart, who has also written a book about Rudd (“Kevin Rudd — An Unauthorised Political Biography”; Paperback Book, 2007), has said of the would-be PM: “He’s not a creature of factions, he’s not a creature of the union movement, he’s not a creature of anyone. And this is both an incredible strength, because he’s going to do it his way, but it’s also a massive weakness.”
In this sense, Rudd, though a long-standing member of his party, resembles Barack Obama in the United States, in that both have been obliged to create new constituencies of support. Were this a “normal” year in Australian — or, indeed, in American — politics, Rudd and Obama might stand little chance of striking at the leadership of their country.
But in these two democracies, when facing a turning point in their nation’s destiny, electorates tend to deliver surprises. In the U.S. it happened in 1932 with FDR, and in 1960 with JFK. In Australia the election of Whitlam in 1972 was just such an occurrence. Today, the polls put Rudd’s chances of taking over the nation’s leadership about 10 percent higher than those of the now-tired government in power. “It’s time again” might be the motto of the day.
The world will be watching Australia in the coming weeks. But APEC will just be a show, a circus that will come to town and go; and once again downtown Sydney will reappear on Google.
The real drama will follow with the federal election, which will decide the course Australia will take in the years ahead.