Kevin Rudd

Can Australia capitalise on its good fortune?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am


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Australia is currently enjoying one of the longest runs of economic expansion in its history, fuelled by China's insatiable appetite for its mineral resources and the country's proximity to other areas of Asian growth.

'McMansions' are sprouting up across the landscape, salaries are rising and unemployment is at its lowest level in decades. It seems that the 'lucky country' is getting luckier.

Why, then, are Australians preparing this Saturday to ditch John Howard, their prime minister of 11 years, and to elect Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd in his place? Possibly because the notoriously timid electorate considers Mr Rudd a younger version of Mr Howard, one of the most conservative leaders ever elected.

The election has been one of the most policy-free campaigns of recent times, with politicians agreeing on most things. Former Labor leader Mark Latham has dubbed it the 'Seinfeld election' - 'the election about nothing'. But while Mr Howard and Mr Rudd mouth platitudes, there are growing concerns that the country and its political leadership are not making the most of the fact that they are in the world's fastest-growing and most dynamic region.

In property terms, Australia is like a cottage that suddenly finds itself in the best street in town surrounded by upmarket homes. By 2040, three of the world's five largest economies will be in Asia. Australia is sitting on a prime site, but isn't sure how to make the most of it.

To be fair, the Putonghua-speaking Mr Rudd has promised to seek closer ties with Asia and ditch Mr Howard's obsequiousness towards the US. But neither Labor nor Mr Howard's Liberal Party have really advanced a comprehensive platform to take advantage of what could be a golden age.

Chief among the priorities should be building a bigger and broader-based economy. Both Mr Rudd and Mr Howard have fallen into the time-honoured Australian tradition of cheering the resources boom while ignoring the need to build an economy. Australia's future shouldn't rely on being a mine for China, but on becoming an Asian leader in telecommunications, biotechnology and engineering.

As part of seeking a new place within the region, Australia needs to attract Asia's best and brightest to its shores, becoming a bigger country in the process and also more ethnically part of the region.

Barring any disastrous campaign slips, Mr Rudd will be Australia's 26th prime minister. While the Labor faithful will relish being back on the government benches after more than a decade, real reformers are not so enthusiastic.

Some are praying for a Labor defeat, predicting that the 116-year old party would not survive another loss, and would collapse. That would dramatically reshape the political landscape, allowing for the rise of another social democratic party that contained some real reformers.

But such a scenario may be a pipe dream. Australians are enjoying their time in the sun and are likely to give Mr Rudd the nod, believing that he will be a safe pair of hands.

Glen Norris is a business news editor at the Post