Australians dare to vote for change

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am

Australians are waking up this morning to what they have done. A government that has presided over an unprecedented period of national and household prosperity has been routed at the polls. Prime Minister John Howard faces the ignominy of losing his own seat in northern Sydney and may not know his fate for days.

For no particular reason, they have voted for change. The Labor Party will form the next government after 11 years in opposition. Kevin Rudd, a youthful 50, replaces 68-year-old Mr Howard, Australia's second-longest-serving prime minister. It is a vote for fresh leadership and a stronger policy on climate change over the proven economic credentials on which Mr Howard and his conservative Liberal-National coalition campaigned.

It is a step into the unknown, but not a very risky one. The contest will be remembered as the 'me too' campaign, particularly on economic management. Mr Rudd spoiled his opponent's attempts to portray Labor's inexperience in government as a risk to economic growth by successfully selling himself as a fiscal conservative who would keep the budget in surplus and guaranteeing the independence of the central bank. He matched, but did not outbid, Mr Howard's generous election tax cuts and giveaways.

For Asia and particularly China, however, it will be business as usual. Foreign affairs, defence and national security - positive issues for the conservatives in past elections - barely emerged in the campaign, save for Labor's plan to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and ratify the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Though it means breaking ranks with the United States, the latter is largely symbolic. Mr Rudd refuses to promise to sign up to a new treaty post-2012 unless China and India do too. That was Mr Howard's stand and another example of 'me-tooism'.

Debate over closer relations with Asia as opposed to traditional ties with the US and Britain has long been overtaken by economic and cultural links with Asia through trade. Australia will continue to fuel China's industrial growth with raw materials. Mr Rudd has resisted political pressure to curb uranium exports, and convinced his party to allow new uranium mines - 'me too' again.

Personally, Mr Rudd is well known, considering he has led his party for only a year and is a relative newcomer to national politics. A former Australian diplomat in China, he is remembered for breaking into fluent Putonghua during the recent Apec leaders' summit in Sydney in front of an audience including President Hu Jintao . Outgoing foreign minister Alexander Downer scoffed that he spoke French but did not show off in public. That rather missed the point, especially among younger Australians who see the relevance of Chinese.

Domestically, Mr Rudd tapped a desire for generational change on issues like global warming and health and education reforms. He also promised to wind back controversial labour laws. A series of small interest-rate rises from historic lows that had begun to hurt families with big mortgages will have done him no harm.

Mr Howard remains one of Australia's most successful political leaders. Yet he did not know when it was time to go. His promise to hand over to heir apparent and treasurer Peter Costello midterm backfired. This might have suited Mr Howard's retirement plans, but the public chose a leader who would stay the distance. With hindsight, the younger Mr Costello might have done better.