Labor wins by a Rudd-slide

by Ramesh Thakur

WATERLOO, Ontario — Poor John Howard. Reckless on climate change, clueless in Iraq, fickle on civil liberties, mean to migrants and minorities, ruthless toward the workers — and now jobless. He also was set to lose the Parliament seat he has represented since 1974, the first sitting prime minister to do so since 1929.

His political epitaph may well read, “Nothing so unbecame him as the manner of his going” (Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”). Similarly, Howard should have exited last year. He would have gone out with political aura as well as dignity intact, remembered fondly by the faithful and gratefully by his party, and basked in well earned rest. Instead he fell victim to hubris.

The Liberal-National coalition had stayed in power owing to luck (such as Howard being in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, when the terrorists struck in New York and Washington); sound economic management that delivered high growth, high employment and low inflation; and unbelievably weak and inept opposition. Through this, voters preferred to ignore and downplay accumulating evidence of dishonorable dealings.

Astonishingly, when Labor chose Rudd as its new leader early this year, Howard raised issues of trust, integrity and honesty in political leaders as a campaign issue in election year. He scored three own goals.

First, Howard brought the most vulnerable part of the coalition’s record — truth, honesty and integrity in government — front and center in election year. Second, he energized the Labor base that had been hemorrhaging under previous leaders Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Mark Latham and then Beazley again. Third, he communicated to the broad public, as nothing else could have, that the government was in panic mode. Instead of Rudd being burned in the glare of the blowtorch shone relentlessly on him, the government members have been swept off the treasury benches by blowback.

Rudd was prompt in acknowledging transgressions, apologizing for the lapses in judgment and promising to do better in future. This contrasted powerfully with the serial “can’t” recalls, know nothings, wasn’t tolds and didn’t reads that Howard’s ministers threw endlessly at the public. Opinion polls were consistently devastating: Most Australians considered Howard too old, deceitful, desperate and devious. Rudd is 50, Howard 68.

Rudd adopted a two-pronged strategy. First, he shrank Labor as a target by copying many of the coalition policies that in previous elections had driven a wedge through traditional Labor voters: firm reaffirmation of the alliance with the U.S., strong opposition to terrorism and terrorists, no wholesale return to the previous Labor government policies from the Bob Hawke and Paul Keating eras. He thus offered the reassurance of a low-risk change from the past to the future.

Second, he staked out a different future on some big picture issues like climate change, Iraq, industrial relations, health and education. He thus underlined Howard’s image as yesterday’s leader who had done well but overstayed his welcome.

The coalition stumbled more frequently and consequentially than Labor during the campaign. Nothing illustrates this better than the final two days. The husbands of a retiring and an aspiring coalition candidate were caught distributing leaflets claiming to be from a (fictitious) Islamic group urging people to vote for Labor because of its support for Muslim terrorists. The issue dominated media comment in the last two days, and reinforced impressions of desperation, deviousness and racism by the government. Rudd undercut Howard brilliantly by promising to spend less, branding Howard as reckless in his bid to bribe voters, while reinforcing his own image as a responsible fiscal conservative.

The campaign provides clues also to likely changes and continuity under Rudd. Howard’s legacy includes a remarkably prosperous, dynamic and self-confident land of opportunity. But he went too far domestically in industrial wars against workers, culture wars against immigrants and history wars against the aborigines. In foreign policy, he swung the pendulum too far away from Asia to the point of being suffocated by the American embrace.

Rudd will likely begin preparations to bring combat troops home from Iraq but not Afghanistan, and to re-engage Asia (he is a competent speaker of Mandarin himself) without spurning America. The most dramatic early action will be ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and active engagement with the U.N. climate change conference in Bali next month.

In a sense this was the world’s first climate change election. A better balance will be restored in domestic politics between civil liberty, state security, the rule of law and governmental accountability. Cultural diversity is likely to be celebrated once again.

Control of both houses of Parliament bred arrogance and hubris in Howard, leading to serially flawed judgments on policy and leadership. Rudd will need to avoid falling into the same trap with Labor governments in every state and territory as well as in Canberra.

Out of power everywhere across the land, the coalition will find renewal and regeneration a tough challenge. Yet contrarians within the party and effective opposition from outside the party are necessary for responsive and accountable government.

Ramesh Thakur, now a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Canada, is an Australian citizen and a former professor at the Australian National University.