A New Face for Australia

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Australian Labor leader Kevin Rudd celebrates his victory in the federal elections with supporters in his hometown of Brisbane on November 24.

"Today Australia has looked to the future," said the country's newly elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, claiming victory for his Labor Party for the first time since 1996. Poll after opinion poll had predicted a Labor triumph in national elections, but few had forecast its scale. Labor captured at least 22 seats from the ruling Liberal-National coalition — including, it appears, the northwestern Sydney seat held for the past 33 years by Prime Minister John Howard. With 77% of votes counted in Sydney's Bennelong district, Howard trailed by several hundred votes. In an emotional speech Nov. 24 Howard took full responsibility for the conservatives' defeat. Then one of Australia's most successful leaders — and one of President George W. Bush's staunchest western allies — walked off the stage and into retirement.

A year ago, few even in his own party believed Rudd, a 50-year-old former diplomat and bureaucrat who has been in Parliament for only nine years, had a hope of overturning the P.M. Indeed, Howard had seen off four Labor opponents in a row. A prissy, bookish multimillionaire, Rudd was far from the stereotypical Aussie bloke. But with the help of focus groups, public-relations advisers and expressions like "mate" and "fair dinkum," he made himself over as a cooler, younger version of 68-year-old Howard: not a revolutionary, just a renovator. His slick, buzzword-driven campaign — "New leadership," "fresh ideas," "plans," "the future" — took Labor's popularity rating into the high 50s, and kept it there.

Pundits have spent much of the past year debating what the trend to Labor said about Australia. In a country where voting is compulsory, elections turn on a dozen or so marginal seats, where small shifts in voter sentiment can make or break governments. There was reason to think swinging voters would applaud Howard: Australia is in its 16th successive year of economic growth, and unemployment and interest rates are the lowest since the '70s. "This is the first defeat of a government in decades where there was no evident anger or public rage," said former Liberal Senator Michael Baume. Instead there was ennui. Many voters were tired of Howard, and unexcited by Treasurer (now Opposition leader) Peter Costello, 50, who was due to take over from Howard in 2009. There were also concerns about small interest-rate rises, new industrial relations laws, health care and education, and — in a period of drought — water and climate change.

Australian elections have become increasingly presidential, and Labor cast this one as a two-man race: Kevin vs John, youth vs age, the future vs the past. A vote for Rudd was a vote for someone new. But not too different. Cartoonists drew Rudd as a mini-Howard. A satirical video on YouTube cast the Chinese-speaking Labor leader as Chairman Mao, with subtitles reading: "Rudd unnerve decrepit Howard with clever strategy of 'similar difference.'" Rather than attacking Howard's strengths, Rudd appropriated them. "I am not a socialist," Rudd insisted. "I am an economic conservative." On issue after issue, from federal intervention in dysfunctional Aboriginal communities, to national security, to the expansion of coal and uranium mining, Rudd adopted the government's line.

The new P.M. is likely to go Howard's way on foreign policy, too. What he described as "fundamental differences" with Howard — his vows to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and pull troops from Iraq — are largely symbolic. Though Australia is outside the Kyoto regime, the country has met its emissions targets. And on the question of a successor treaty to Kyoto, Rudd in mid-campaign abruptly took the Howard position: a Labor government would not ratify Kyoto II unless it required China and India to limit their emissions. On Iraq, Rudd has moderated Labor's earlier "pull-out-now" policy. He says he will bring home the 1,400 Australian troops in Iraq and the Gulf gradually, in a "negotiated, staged withdrawal." He is prepared to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Australia under Labor will remain a "rock solid" friend of the U.S., Rudd has said, but reserve the right to act "independently." Rudd, who spent eight years as a diplomat in Beijing, has criticized China's human-rights record but appears more sympathetic to the People's Republic than Howard. Rudd rejected the Howard government support of a potential alliance between the U.S., Australia, Japan and India, saying China would feel encircled.

As exultant Labor voters — "Eleven and a half years is just too long," many said of Howard's long run — cheered Rudd's victory speech, some observers wondered whether he'll maintain his Howard-like demeanor or whether, as left-wing commentator Robert Manne said during the campaign, "When he gets into government, then we'll begin to see the differences again." Australians who voted Labor only when Rudd moved toward the center may be hoping those differences are not too startling.