Howard’s end

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 22/11/07):

Sydney Morning Herald columnist Annabel Crabb has conjured a cutting ditty to describe the predicament facing the Australian prime minister, John Howard, in Saturday’s elections. “Oh voters: if you really care/Elect a man who won’t be there!/Vote for him on Saturday/It’s guaranteed he’ll go away.”

The poem is a reference to Howard’s Blair-like pledge to hand over the PM’s job to his deputy, the treasurer Peter Costello, some time during his next term.

But as opinion polls unanimously indicate, the 68-year-old Liberal leader’s descent into oblivion after 11 years at the top may come much sooner.

With the opposition Labor party of Kevin Rudd poised to sweep to power, Howard’s wished-for fifth term looks like a wet dream. He may even lose his own seat of Bennelong, held for 33 years.

Like Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, he has out-stayed his welcome, writes Tom Switzer in the Australian. “Howard’s career is ending in failure … It was not supposed to be like this.”

Like the American conservatives who so admire him, Howard has resorted, in his last throes, to the politics of fear.

He warned this week of the “enormous risks” a change of government might entail, implying security and prosperity would suffer. A clumsy attempt to link Labor to Islamic terrorism appeared to have backfired yesterday.

Right-wingers sneer at the 50-year-old Rudd, likening him to a school prefect or class swot, a “Milky Bar Kid” who lacks experience and judgment.

“Do we really want a prime minister named Kevin?” they ask snobbily.

To which Rudd replies: “Howard’s government has gone stale and no longer comprehends the challenges of the future.” Like US Democrats now and in 1992, he says “it’s time for a change”.

With Australia’s resource-based economy benefiting from high commodity prices and most social groups doing relatively well, a Labor government is unlikely to face immediate domestic challenges. Rudd in any case styles himself an “economic conservative”, stressing continuity.

But in international affairs, a Labor victory may presage significant shifts in direction and emphasis. Howard’s unquestioning support for George Bush and his “war on terror”, his dispatch of troops to Iraq, his self-appointed “deputy sheriff” security role in the Pacific region and his rejection of the Kyoto climate change protocol are all issues that will cost him votes – and on which Labor takes a different line.

Rudd has pledged to withdraw combat troops from Iraq (although he may reinforce those in Afghanistan).

He says he will sign up to Kyoto and lead the charge for carbon emission reductions at next month’s UN climate summit in Bali.

He is also proposing increased foreign aid for unstable regional neighbours such as Fiji, Tonga, the Solomons and East Timor, where the Howard government has intervened, sometimes militarily, with mixed results.

“Most of the rest of the developing world is improving. In our neighbourhood … practically all the indicators are heading the wrong way,” Rudd said recently. “We’ve got a moral obligation to act, it’s in our self-interest.”

Rudd has also promised to close controversial offshore refugee detention centres set up by Howard on Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Not unlike Gordon Brown, Rudd suggests Australia under his leadership will maintain a close alliance with the US – while tacitly distancing itself from the current White House incumbent.

All the same, Labor’s most significant foreign policy recalibration could involve a shift towards Asia, a shift that is already under way and which in time may push the US into the background.

Australia and Japan, already strong trade partners, signed a new security pact earlier this year. Canberra is increasingly involved in regional organisations such as the East Asia summit (that excludes the US). Relations with Muslim Indonesia are much improved.

But it is the pull of China, its growing international clout and its enormous markets that are most affecting conventional thinking. According to foreign ministry figures, China will become Australia’s largest trading partner this year, a trend buoyed by uranium sales to the Chinese nuclear industry. While exports to China are rising fast, those to the US are falling.

Rudd, a fluent Mandarin speaker who studied Chinese history and served as a diplomat in Beijing, is well placed to build up this key bilateral relationship.

Nobody in Canberra is talking about a break with the US and “the west”. But as the Asian century gathers pace, Howard’s end could mark a new beginning for an old dominion.