“Do we want a prime minister who looks like a dentist?”
–Australian comedian Barry Humphries, on Kevin Rudd
“The basic lesson: never listen to Rudd on foreign policy. If that guy’s an expert, then I’m Henry Kissinger.”
–Former Australian Labor leader Mark Latham
In the dying days of last week’s Australian federal election campaign, one incident perhaps best revealed the notoriously effective way the former Liberal Party Australian Prime Minister John Howard played the race card over his nearly twelve years in power. A leaflet appeared in a marginal Sydney constituency that purported to be written by a Muslim group and claimed that the Labor opposition supported the terrorists who caused carnage in Bali in 2002, killing eighty-eight Australians and many others.
The only problem was that the Islamic group didn’t exist. The incident exposed a desperate attempt by a candidate to exploit fear of Australia’s nearly 400,000 Muslims. There is no evidence to suggest that Howard was personally involved in the scandal, but his leadership has been marked by a tendency to exploit, rather than control, the country’s underlying unease about its relationship with non-Anglo-Saxons and its indigenous population. Those behind the leaflet debacle would have simply believed that they were acting with Howard’s blessing in winning at any cost, whatever the social price.
The political annihilation of Prime Minister John Howard in the November 24 election marks a milestone in Australian history. “From this day forth,” writes political columnist Glenn Milne, “no government can rely on the successful management of the economy to guarantee its re-election. The message from election 2007 is that long-serving governments must demonstrate the will to renew both their ideas and their leadership to survive in the modern electoral era.”
He is correct, but the election of Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd to the prime ministership may not necessarily represent a repudiation of the worst excesses of the past decade. An “It’s Time” factor became almost infectious as soon as Rudd assumed the Labor leadership in late 2006. Voters wanted change, a younger personality to replace the near 70-year-old Howard, and Rudd offered, in his cautious technocratic way, a sense of slight change without seriously challenging the fundamentals of relatively prosperous, conservative capitalism. No polls indicated intense dislike for Howard before the election, though he was accused, like so many global leaders before him, of not recognizing when it was time to retire. His Liberal Party is now out of power at every level of Australian government.
Booker Prize-winning author Thomas Keneally, a Sydney resident, wrote recently in the Sydney Sun-Herald that Howard belonged to a generation that has a “tendency to the dark prejudices of our childhood, to them-and-us thinking, to a narrowness and vengefulness…. He has a gift for spotting the opportunities to scapegoat to advantage. And his targets are…union bosses, asylum seekers and the Muslims to whom he extends one hand open and the other sheathed in [intelligence agency] ASIO’s steel mitt.”