For a split second it looked as if a dizzy John Howard was about to surf the swirling crowd in the grand ballroom of Sydney's Wentworth Hotel. Just before he claimed his third election victory late on Saturday night, Australia's Prime Minister bent forward from the stage to grab one of the many hands thrust toward him-but pulled back before the mob's exuberance turned to horseplay. "What a wonderful result tonight is," he beamed. "I cannot express to you the sense of honor and privilege in once again being elected as Prime Minister of the greatest country in the world." Flags were waved, fists pumped the air, and Howard, wife Janette and children Melanie and Tim interrupted their exit to join the jubilant crowd in a rock-steady version of the national anthem.
On Nov. 10, Australians chose the leader they thought was right for the times; they re-elected the man they now know well -a solid man, true to his convictions. But Howard does not warm voters' hearts or stir them with his vision for the future. In Labor leader Kim Beazley, they saw a decent man whom they could grow to like. But they were not prepared to bet on him and his party; they didn't trust them to protect Australia's borders from illegal immigrants arriving in boats, to lead the country in the war against terrorism or to guide it through difficult economic times. Their reluctance ended the political veteran's dream of becoming Prime Minister.
Howard's Liberal-National Coalition secured a 1.25% swing against Labor: the Liberal Party's 3% jump in votes was the best result for an incumbent party since 1966. By Sunday morning, it appeared that the Coalition would have 80 seats in the new 150-seat House of Representatives, 13 more than Labor. The successes of Independents Peter Andren in Calare, New South Wales, former National Party maverick Bob Katter in Kennedy, north Queensland, and Tony Windsor in New England, N.S.W.-unsettling the rural-based National Party-leaves Howard's effective parliamentary majority unchanged at 10 seats. Only a handful of seats nationwide changed hands.
On Sunday, the two major parties' spinmeisters were already scrambling to make sense of what looked like a vote for the status quo. Liberal Party operatives batted away charges that their campaign had appealed to latent racism under the banner of border protection, while Laborites groped to explain why their party's primary vote was at a near-record low-and why so many Labor supporters had defected to the Greens, doubling that party's support base to 5.5%. Pauline Hanson's One Nation was battered, losing half of the million votes it captured in 1998 to the Coalition.
As in that election, australians were exposed to a Presidential-style contest between Beazley and Howard, who followed tight scripts and schedules meticulously planned for a voracious media. Voters have learned not to expect much from such unimaginative shows. But throughout the five-week campaign, the sound they could not have failed to hear was Howard's strident tone on border protection. "We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come," he declared at his campaign launch. In the final days of the contest, his words blanketed the country like looped recordings or endless graffito scrawls, smothering Beazley's message.
A vanquished Beazley tried to raise his party's spirits. "We have looked down through the fog of war to the kitchen table of the average Australian," he said of his campaign effort. "We have listened to their hopes and their dreams, the aspirations that they have." Labor tried-and failed-to make domestic concerns, such as health, education and jobs, the key to the contest; but its platform was neither bold nor enticing. The "small-target" strategy of keeping policies under wraps until the frenetic last moments left the party in disarray.
Border protection and the war on terrorism dominated the election campaign; while they swung between foreground and background, the two issues-sometimes linked in voters' minds-rode a constant undercurrent of community anxiety. While Labor publicly supported the government on the security front, the Coalition exploited the chance to reinforce Howard's image as a strong leader. "It's not a time to swap clarity and strength with obscurity and indecision," Howard, already the clear favorite, said after announcing the poll on Oct. 5. Beazley seized the underdog role -and tried to portray the government as lacking the wit, heart or energy for a third term. The choice, he said, was between a "tired government out of touch with ordinary Australians" and a "new Labor government with a firm commitment to the future."
Six months before the campaign began, however, it was Howard who looked like the underdog. Business confidence was shaky, home-building rates had slumped, the dollar was weak and the country was talking itself into an economic funk. In February, Labor took government in Western Australia and Queensland's Labor Premier Peter Beattie decisively won a second term. A month later, the Liberals lost a federal by-election in the "safe" seat of Ryan, in Brisbane. Howard did backflips-or, as he put it, addressed community concerns-on petrol excise, family trusts and business accounting. Every opinion poll had Beazley a mile in front.
But the wind shifted for the government. In May, a crafty Budget targeted older Australians. Then, while the Reserve Bank cut official interest rates-and mortgage lenders followed suit-Howard began to stoke an economic recovery by spending the Budget surplus-and then some. He began looking forward to 2002, 2003, 2004, and promising wedges of taxpayer dollars to every sizeable interest group he needed to capture or hold on to: farmers, first-home buyers, self-funded retirees. By July, Howard could boast that the economy was "roaring along." His electoral fortunes were improving, too: his party won a by-election in the Melbourne seat of Aston.
Late in August, Howard had an immense stroke of political luck. The Tampa, a Norwegian container ship sailing through the Indian Ocean on its way to Indonesia, rescued some 440 asylum seekers, most of whom said they were Afghans, from a sinking vessel 140 km northwest of the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island. Though the boat was in Indonesia's sea-rescue zone, the passengers demanded to be taken to Australia. Howard ordered that the vessel be turned back and, through days of diplomatic drama on the high seas, refused to budge. He and Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock talked the tough talk that most Australians wanted to hear: with boatloads of asylum seekers arriving every other week on the reefs to Australia's north, ordinary folk feared that hundreds of thousands of would-be illegal entrants saw the country as a soft target. While Howard's government scrambled to find a solution to the problem (eventually paying poorer neighbors Nauru and Papua New Guinea to become processing centers), Labor twisted and turned to save its political skin in the face of overwhelming support for the government's hard line. Once again, Beazley's lack of resolve harmed his image: he was seen as lacking the mettle to make, and stick to, tough decisions.
Sept. 11 turned the nation's attention-and its people's heart-to its greatest ally. As Howard threw Australia's support behind the U.S., President Bush and the war on terrorism, his image as a stalwart leader strengthened and his popularity surged. At times of crisis abroad, the country's voters tend not to toss out incumbents. So when Howard embarked on the five-week election campaign, he oozed confidence and control. "I have never been more committed to winning an election or a political campaign in my life," he said.
Before the electoral writs were issued, the U.S. had begun bombing Afghanistan. Beazley's counter to Howard's flag-waving and commander-in-chief-ing was to emphasize his own military credentials-as Defence Minister during the 1980s-and stress Labor's wholehearted backing of the government's policy. "I stand shoulder to shoulder with the leader of the Liberal Party in supporting the Allied effort to bring international terrorism to a conclusion," he said. When the campaign started, Labor chose the theme "security abroad and security at home." But it feared that international events would overshadow its domestic agenda of education, health and a limited "rollback" of the goods and services tax-issues that polls showed were voters' chief domestic concerns.
By the end of the campaign's first week, Beazley had made some headway. During a televised debate between the two leaders that was watched by 2.5 million people, he appeared more passionate, aggressive and energetic than a subdued Prime Minister. Beazley's lines were zippier and his policy message was beginning to break through. If Howard was trying to appear statesmanlike during the debate, the strategy didn't work. His advisers quickly let their man loose again to play his natural political street-fighting game.
And the photo opportunities kept coming. Howard announced the country's troop deployment in the Middle East; a few days later he was at the lectern in Townsville, north Queensland, with the Army's 2nd Battalion, on its way to service in East Timor. Howard ventured to Shanghai to attend the leaders' conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum: he didn't get a meeting with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri to discuss the boat people, but he scored big time in an embrace for the cameras with President Bush.
When the state of the Budget was made public on Oct. 17, Labor hearts fell. The surplus for the coming year had shrunk to $A500 million, $A1 billion less than anticipated in the May Budget. Treasurer Peter Costello still had the books in the black, so financial markets would continue to give the government the benefit of the doubt on fiscal management. Labor's heavy-spending plans were suddenly in a straitjacket. When Beazley announced Labor's GST rollback policy-on items from nappies to funerals and utility bills-the cost and scale were modest. But while rollback looked like a fizzer, the domestic agenda was starting to engage voters. The leaders crisscrossed the continent, trying to entice swinging voters in marginal seats with cash and compliments.
Howard locked on to the crucial demographic he needed-families living on the outer fringes of the capital cities, where a score of marginal seats are located-when he launched his campaign in Sydney on Oct. 28. At the heart of his pitch was a $A1.2 billion "baby bonus" to offset the income families lost when one parent stayed at home to care for a child. He promised to be tough on illicit drugs and to boost resources to fight international crime and terrorism. Howard's most potent message was about border protection-his "We decide" remark drew the hottest voter response of the campaign.
Three days later, launching his own campaign at Sydney's Hurstville Entertainment Centre, Beazley made a pitch to Labor traditionalists, promising not to sell the government's share in the telecommunications giant Telstra and to restore funding to a range of national institutions: universities, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. He vowed to see his program through. "While I have a plan for the future," he said, "my political opponent only has a plan for retirement."
Early in the campaign, media titan Rupert Murdoch warned that his country of birth was in danger of "global irrelevance" without urgent support for centers of learning. Labor's answer, the so-called Knowledge Nation program, only raised questions about funding. Beazley made his formal appeal for the top job in a flourish at the end of his speech, stressing security, fairness, tolerance, cleverness, creativity and strength. "That's what I stand for," he concluded, a self-damning line from someone who has had five years as the alternative Prime Minister to convey just that.
Away from the spotlight, extraordinary things were happening on the ground-even if the final count shows that few seats were snatched from incumbents on either side. Although recent electorate-boundary changes were presumed to have handed Sydney's Macarthur and Parramatta to Labor, Liberals Pat Farmer and Ross Cameron respectively secured big swings in their favor. Singled out for praise by Howard on election night, they are the party's newest heroes. Labor needed to hold the seats to secure its base and press for victory in other marginal electorates. That Farmer and Cameron had Liberal Party dollars in their pockets and many people on the ground to help their cause no doubt eased the path to victory; still, their tenacity and strong local appeal secured handsome wins. "A campaign like this is won person by person," says Cameron. "You have to win each vote, one by one. There is no silver bullet for victory. It's really a case of how you run your office, how you respond to constituents' issues and that you are seen locally as something other than a post-office box for complaints."
At the Liberal celebration in Sydney, head-turning T shirts competed with suits and gowns: a broader Liberal Party had changed its tops. The proudest campaign workers wore T-shirt tributes to Cameron and Farmer. Across the country, in seat after seat, the Coalition partners had beaten Labor in the hand-to-hand fighting to hold their turf. If it was a good night for strong local members, such as Sport and Tourism Minister Jackie Kelly and N.S.W. central coast M.P. Jim Lloyd (each scored a huge swing), it was also payday for "conviction politicians," such as Greens leader Bob Brown. And, of course, for Howard.
To those who said the Prime Minister had run out of puff, Howard says phooey. To those who accuse him of fanning racist fears during the campaign, Howard cites the many ordinary Australians who share his concerns but reject the racist tag. Will he be remembered by students of politics as a great Prime Minister? Just look at the scoreboard: three elections on the trot. Only Sir Robert Menzies and Bob Hawke have done better. There is much to be achieved before Howard can ease into retirement. "We face, as a nation, some new and unexpected challenges," he said in his victory speech. "We have ahead of us some difficult and challenging years." Howard ran on leadership and so now he must lead.
This time the task is more daunting than it was in 1996 or 1998: the world economy is stagnating, Australia's troops are being sent abroad, boats laden with foreigners of uncertain background are heading for the country's shores. Howard's team is sound on money, but its border protection policy is not working and body bags from the war would test his-and his country's-resolve. If Howard can make history's top grade, the nation will thank him; amid softer hearts and minds at rest, his final exit will echo this week's triumph.