In the end those final polls suggesting a last-minute John Howard recovery turned out to be a mirage. The Aussies wanted a change, and Kevin Rudd, the schoolboyish Labor leader, had very effectively soothed away any fears that his government would be a change too far. The Labor party won by a solid seven-percent margin of victory nationally. It now controls not only the federal government but also all the state governments in the Australian Commonwealth. Most observers suggest it will remain in power for two three-year terms, since one-term governments are a rarity in Oz.
How will Labor govern? Rudd is a shrewd politician who accepts that Australia has been permanently transformed by Howard’s reforms. With the exception of a labor-deregulation law set for repeal, not a lot will change back. In general Rudd will try to take Australia down a Blair-like path of moderate social democracy. He has a greater chance of success than Blair did, because his pre-election promises (including tax cuts) have been specific, moderate, and popular. In the campaign, he was actually more fiscally conservative than Howard and the conservative coalition.
Like Blair, however, he’s leading a Labor party with a strong left wing. This means that the more he pleases the voters, the more he angers his backbenchers and his base in the cultural Left. For the moment that Left is quiet. It is grateful to Rudd and aware that Howard remains respected — Labor’s radical deputy leader, Julia Gillard, paid an unusually warm tribute to the outgoing prime minister on election night. But this restraint will soon atrophy. Rudd had better strengthen his grip on the party machine if he is to ensure that his reform program remains a moderate one. Three years is a short time. Unless he stamps his authority firmly and quickly on the government, he risks the Blairite fate of leaving office with his achievements still in prospect.
For America this change is tinged with regret — Howard was an usually generous and outspoken ally. Is the change, however, a consequential one? Among the many Australian institutions transformed by Howard is the Labor party. It has shed its earlier anti-Americanism and Rudd himself is firmly pro-American. Australians are the only nation to have fought alongside the U.S. in every war since 1914. That reflects a national pro-American disposition which is unlikely to change.
Even Rudd’s promise to withdraw from Iraq — a phased withdrawal of combat troops will begin in 2008 — is studiously moderate. Iraq was not an important issue in this election — even less so than three years ago. Rudd’s main foreign-policy pledge was to sign the Kyoto treaty. This is a claim of virtue rather than a practical policy. Most other U.S. allies are Kyoto signatories (though none have reduced their carbon emissions in line with their promises). It is unlikely to obstruct good relations with Washington.
For the defeated Liberals there were some bright spots amid the encircling gloom of election night. Both Peter Costello, formerly seen as Howard’s successor for the party leadership, and the sharp-tongued lawyer Malcolm Turnbull, Costello’s putative rival, won against the general trend with improved shares of the vote. Health minister Tony Abbot, the charismatic leader of Australia’s social conservatives, held his seat and will be an important figure in any Liberal opposition leadership. Foreign minister Alexander Downer is also back. The Liberals are out but not down.
Some commentators argue that a party governing neither federal nor state bodies is bound to be a weak opposition. This view was initially strengthened by the surprise decision of Costello to forgo the party leadership and pursue a career in business from inside parliament. But even if we take Costello’s decision at face value — and some observers think he is retreating the better to advance later — its first effect has been to stimulate an exciting horserace. Turnbull, Abbot, Downer, and others have all expressed interest in becoming Liberal and opposition leader. Though we shall be deprived of the pleasure of an Abbot vs. Costello contest, this crowded field suggests the prize is worth having.
And with good reason. The Liberals were not swept away by a landslide (despite headlines to the contrary); they won 47 percent of the first-preference votes. They lost office in good times not because their policies were discredited, but because the voters were bored with John Howard after eleven years. The voters chose Labor because Rudd assured them that he would not depart far from Howard’s policies. If Labor ever does veer leftward, or if good times ever look like disappearing (and a Kyoto commitment that went much beyond gesture would threaten Australia’s prosperity), then the recent memory of Liberal success would quickly revive the party’s fortunes.
Australia’s conservative coalition is thus likely to be a robust and fighting one in opposition. With tough, experienced, and principled leaders such as those mentioned above, it will definitely not descend into the neurotic defeatism of the British Tories after they defenestrated Thatcher and followed John Major on his winding descent into meaninglessness. The upside of Howard’s remaining too long is that he fought a brave campaign in defense of his record, and left office admired by the voters and respected even by opponents. As a result the Howard record can be a springboard for his party’s recovery under new management. In the meantime a hard-fought leadership contest will be a good first step toward that.
And Howard himself? His loss of his own parliamentary constituency is a blessing in disguise — perhaps very effectively disguised, as Churchill said on a similar occasion — because it will ease his exit from conventional Australian politics. Howard is a lifelong worker and won’t want a long vacation. Nor will being a bland elder statesman suit his “battler” personality. So he still has a career ahead of him.
What might it be? Howard may not realize the extent to which he is both a symbol of common-sense conservatism and an admired statesman in the English-speaking world. There is no job, alas, that currently corresponds to those abilities. Howard could perhaps help to turn the old British Commonwealth (which is beginning to stir again) into a serious international player. Or he might lead the international alliance of conservative parties — in which he has been active — into a deeper consideration of what conservatism means today. Wherever the next few years take Howard, he will go as the second most successful politician electorally and, arguably, the most successful politician in terms of achievement in Australian history. Well done.