Is Howard's luck running out?
Another friend and important international ally of US President George W. Bush is on the retreat. Australian Prime Minister John Howard looks likely to face a close-run election later this year. For the first time in a long while, the Labor opposition leads not only in the ever-fickle opinion polls but also in that more reliable guide to the future - bookmakers' odds.
This may prove a flash in the pan, a knee-jerk public response to Labor's appointment of a new leader, Kevin Rudd. He combines a moderate, centrist standpoint and polite demeanour with workaholic ways that display his ambition to become the first Labor prime minister in over a decade.
Mr Howard's 11-year run of good luck has made him the second-longest serving prime minister in Australian history. But it may be beginning to desert him. Until recently he had been immune to the electoral and personal setbacks stemming from the war in Iraq. Although most Australians never approved of participation in the war, it has hitherto not been an electoral liability. The main reason for that is that not a single Australian soldier has been killed by enemy action. It seems that the 1,400 troops in the theatre are mostly kept out of harm's way. That way they serve the purpose of cementing the US-Australia alliance without submitting it to the test of body bags.
Mr Howard has thus been able to sustain the position of being seen at home as a defender of Australian security interests and fighter against radical Islam while not having to submit the nation to the test of major combat - unlike in Vietnam, where Australians took many casualties and there was a massive anti-war movement.
But the Australian bluff has been called by US Democratic hopeful Senator Barack Obama. Mr Howard criticised Senator Obama's call for a 2008 troop pull-out, saying he would be cheered by al-Qaeda. Senator Obama responded by suggesting that if he were so keen to join the fight, Mr Howard should send another 20,000 troops - which would be political suicide.
There are allegations that Mr Howard singled out Senator Obama, rather than other Democrats calling for withdrawal, because he was black.
But the episode has rebounded on Mr Howard, who is seen to have a partisan attachment to the failing Bush agenda. This does no good for the wider US- Australia relationship, a bipartisan bedrock of Australian policies.
Whether this will seriously undermine Mr Howard's 'tin hat' status - as the leader who takes a strong position on security interests - remains to be seen. Any more Bali bombings or too many more outbursts by radical Sydney imams, could send voters scurrying back to the supposed safety of the Howard-Bush agenda. But for now, at least, Mr Howard's position on security issues has been tarnished, helping Mr Rudd widen Labor's lead in the polls created by its positions on workplace and environmental issues. Confronted by a serious drought, Mr Howard has had to change course on climate change and water issues, but he is clearly a follower not a leader on this issue.
The economy should help the Howard cause. It continues to grow at a satisfactory rate, wages are rising and unemployment is at its lowest in many years. Yet there is an undercurrent of concern. Rises in interest rates are pressuring the many deeply indebted households, and while the mineral-rich states are booming, the populous southeastern states, New South Wales in particular, are doing significantly less well. There may also be resentment at the widening of wealth and income gaps in the past decade or so, a striking development for a once egalitarian society.
Mr Rudd is a fresh face for a Labor Party that has had a succession of lacklustre leaders. As a former diplomat who speaks Putonghua, he can present himself as safe on foreign policy yet able to engage with an Asia always suspicious of Mr Howard. On domestic issues ranging from the workplace to uranium mining and the environment, he has so far reined in some of the more radical elements in his party.
Meanwhile, the electorate may be tiring of Mr Howard, with or without his recent gaffes. But it would be premature to write off a man who is quite capable of finding issues with which to scare the electors back into his camp, or of adjusting policies to the public mood.
He has just recruited a high-profile lawyer, investment banker and power-broker, Malcolm Turnbull, to face the environmental and water issues. This will make it even less likely that his own deputy, Treasurer Peter Costello, will challenge him.
More surprises to divert attention away from Mr Rudd are likely. Mr Howard will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum summit in Sydney this year, giving him a chance to burnish his image before the election. Meanwhile, Mr Rudd will have plenty of opportunity to make gaffes of his own.
Nonetheless, the punters' money is now on Mr Rudd. His victory would mostly be well received in an Asia irritated by Mr Howard's preference for the Bush alliance over the 'meshing with Asia' goals more characteristic of Labor.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator