Poor John Howard. Reckless on Kyoto, clueless in Iraq, fickle on civil liberties, mean to migrants and minorities, ruthless towards the workers - and now jobless. He has lost his own seat, which he has represented since 1974, the first sitting Prime Minister since 1929 to do so. For a change of government, the Labour needed a net gain of 16 seats in Australia's 150-seat Parliament. With six seats still undecided on Saturday night, Labour had won 84, the coalit ion 58 and independents 2. As one of the major dailies screamed, "Howard humiliated as Liberals are mauled." Another way to appreciate the magnitude of Kevin Rudd's achievement is to recall that he is only the third Labour leader in 60 years to win an election from the opposition.
Mr. Howard's political epitaph may well read, "Nothing so unbecame him as the manner of his going." Macbeth said of his Lady, she should have died hereto. Similarly, Mr. Howard should have exited last year. He would have gone out with political aura as well as dignity intact, remembered fondly by the Howard-huggers and gratefully by his party, and basked in well-earned rest. Instead, like so many leaders in all parts of the world, he fell victim to his own hubris and infallibility.
The Liberal-National coalition had stayed in power owing to luck; 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 dishonourable dealings. Astonishingly, when Labour chose Mr. Rudd as its new leader early this year, Mr. Howard raised issues of trust, integrity and honesty in political leaders as a campaign issue in election year.
Targeting minor discrepancies in Mr. Rudd's biography, his opponents succeeded in riveting voters on the big picture of his life story. His father died in a tragic accident. He was working and living on the farm. The family had to vacate the dwelling in order to make way for the replacement hired help. Mr. Rudd was 11 at the time. In 2007, as leader of the opposition, he was on the cusp of becoming Prime Minister of Australia. This is a compelling human interest and human drama story. The more widely it was broadcast, the longer the story ran on the front pages and the lead bulletins, the more exalted was Mr. Rudd's status with the public, to the government's growing frustration.
The attempt to tarnish Mr. Rudd's character caused no lasting damage to him, but scored three own goals for the coalition. First, it brought the most vulnerable part of the coalition's record - truth in government (cue Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, reducing terrorist threat, asylum seekers in a leaky boat being turned away with no mercy and lots of lies, more lies with children overboard, the government backed AWB as the biggest defrauder in the U.N. oil-for-food scandal, election promises broken because they were non-core, leadership deal with deputy Peter Costello that was brushed aside, ministerial code of conduct that was abandoned because too many were having to resign) - front and centre in election year. Secondly, it energised the Labour base which had been haemorrhaging under previous leaders Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Mark Latham and then Mr. Beazley again. As Karl Rove showed so brilliantly in the U.S., motivating your own base can be the key to electoral success. Thirdly, it communicated to the broad public, as nothing else could have, that the government was in panic mode.
Realising this, the coalition began to dig even more furiously, and thought it had found pay-dirt when Mr. Rudd was discovered to have visited a strip tease club on a visit to the U.N. in New York. The Bill Clinton impeachment saga showed that there comes a time in the affairs of political leaders when the voters become stubborn, dig their heels in, refuse to listen to any more scandalous stories, and punish the muckrakers instead. In fact, the strip tease incident showed to the Australian public that Mr. Rudd was human after all, not a mere robot. Instead of Mr. Rudd being burnt in the glare of the blowtorch shone relentlessly on him, the government members have been swept off the treasury benches by blowback.
Many journalists had become used to being treated like mushroom by the Howard government - kept in the dark and fed manure every once in a while. They were slow to awake to the reality of the voters' mood for change that had been less strong than Labour's death wish. In the 2004 election, Mr. Latham self-destructed spectacularly. When Mr. Beazley returned as party leader, voters simply stopped listening. Suddenly, with Mr. Rudd, Labour looked and acted electable to electrifying effect on the electorate.
Mr. Rudd was prompt in acknowledging transgressions, apologising 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 Mr. Howard's Ministers threw endlessly at the public. Opinion polls were consistently devastating: most Australians considered Mr. Howard too old, deceitful, desperate and devious. Mr. Rudd is 50, Mr. Howard 68.
Mr. Rudd adopted a two-pronged strategy. First, he shrank Labour as a target by copying many of the coalition policies that in previous elections had driven a wedge through traditional Labour voters: firm reaffirmation of the alliance with the U.S., strong opposition to terrorism and terrorists, no wholesale return to the previous Labour government policies from the Bob Hawke and Paul Keating eras. Secondly, he staked out a different future on some big picture issues such as climate change, Iraq, industrial relations, health and education.
The coalition stumbled more frequently and consequentially than Labour 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 Labour 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. Small ‘l' liberals had already been disenchanted by the Howard government over the methodical assault on civil liberties (for example, the case of Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef). Former coalition and Labour Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating were equally damning of the country's loss of moral compass under Mr. Howard. Most brilliantly of all, Mr. Rudd undercut Mr. Howard by promising to spend less, branding him as reckless in a desperate 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 Mr. Rudd. In the fullness of time, Mr. Howard's contributions over more than 11 years will be judged to include the legacy of a remarkably prosperous, dynamic and self-confident land of opportunity. Domestically, in efforts to break the power of the unions, Mr. Howard went too far with a class war against the ordinary workers who returned to the Labour fold. He went too far in his culture wars against many immigrant groups, and too far too in his history wars against the aborigines and their plight. In foreign policy, he swung the pendulum too far away from Asia to the point of being suffocated by the American embrace.
Mr. Rudd will likely begin preparations to bring 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. Hopefully, some balance will be restored in domestic politics among civil liberty, state security, the rule of law and governmental accountability. Cultural diversity is likely to be celebrated once again.
Mr. Rudd began his career as a foreign service officer and rose rapidly to the senior ranks. When I asked him once why he resigned, he replied that if you want to make policy, you have to be a politician. Oddly enough, an early major test for him might come if the India-U.S. nuclear deal is approved by all sides. Mr. Rudd is on record as opposing it. Labour traditionally puts a higher premium on global regimes such as the NPT than on bilateral ties. Yet, as argued in an article in the influential Boston Globe by Karl Inderfurth and Bruce Riedel on Saturday, two former U.S. administration officials (1997-2001/02), the nuclear deal might offer a more realistic route to the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world under joint Indo-U.S. leadership. The obsession with the NPT ensures that the good becomes the enemy of the best.
Control of both houses of Parliament bred arrogance and hubris in Mr. Howard, leading to serially flawed judgments on policy and leadership. Mr. Rudd will need to avoid falling into the same trap with Labour governments in every state, territory and Canberra. Out of power everywhere across the land, the Liberal-National coalition will find renewal and regeneration a tough challenge. Contrarians within the party and effective opposition are necessary for responsive and accountable government.