“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.”
Howard’s greatest “crime,” almost absent from discussion in the election campaign, was his decision to join George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq. Even though a majority of the population opposed the war, in 2003 and still today, Howard articulated his reasons for sending a handful of troops to help eliminate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Just days before the start of the war, Howard said, “I would have to accept that if Iraq had genuinely disarmed, I couldn’t justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime.”
The real intent, as Howard acknowledged earlier this year, was to preserve and strengthen the Australia/US alliance. “The greatest current threat to the quality of the alliance”, he argued, “would be a sense in the United States that Australia had deserted her in her hour of need.” Slavish loyalty to failed policies was preferable to challenging disastrous mistakes.
By wholeheartedly embracing the rhetoric and policies of the “war on terror”–from defending Guantánamo Bay and extraordinary rendition to sending troops to Afghanistan and mocking “infantile” war opponents whose “doomsday predictions” were not “realized”–Howard was little more than an effective Republican Bush clone. Bush once labeled Howard the “Deputy Sheriff” of the Asia-Pacific. Howard wore the tag with pride. His tragic appropriation of Bush Administration talking points was revealed in February, when he said, “If I was running Al Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for [Barack] Obama but also for the Democrats.” Opposition leader Rudd rightly shot back: “I cannot understand how any responsible leader of this country can say…that the Democratic Party of the United States is the terrorist party of choice.”
Despite these failings, Howard won four elections in a row, and like Bush, he was adept at using the Karl Rove playbook of turning weaknesses into a perceived strength. He said in 1986 that the “times will suit me.” For more than ten years, beginning in 1996, the country clearly agreed. This election was not a referendum on Iraq or foreign affairs issues–they were not irrelevant, but most voters who turned on the government, Howard’s so-called “battlers” or aspirationals, were concerned about extreme industrial relations policies, rises in interest rates and Howard’s denial of climate change. One of Howard’s greatest legacies has been his ability to fundamentally shift the attitudes of many Australians toward the United States.
Sydney University’s United States Studies Centre–founded and funded in part by Australian-born Rupert Murdoch after he feared a rise in “anti-Americanism” in the years after 9/11–released a study in October that found that a majority of Australians wanted to maintain a close relationship with the United States. But 73 percent saw Australia as more of a terrorist target because of its decision to join the “war on terror,” and nearly 50 percent wanted the country to pursue a more independent foreign policy agenda. Many expressed pessimism that the United States “deals responsibly with world problems,” and half were opposed to our military presence in Afghanistan. Global warming was seen as one of the fundamental challenges for the world, a far greater problem than Islamic fundamentalism.
Ironically, the Murdoch press in Australia has championed the Bush Administration’s policies for years and only recently discovered climate change. The establishment media are clearly out of touch with the attitudes of average Australians. The Murdoch press has also relentlessly pushed the “culture wars”; a tiresome gaggle of commentators are convinced that the “elites” and the “left” control the education system, the mainstream media and public debate. (Murdoch owns close to 70 percent of the country’s newspapers.)
Unsurprisingly, most of the Murdoch press editorialized for Rudd in the days before the poll, confirming the theory that assuming and maintaining power, and backing a winner, is the supreme ideology in the mogul’s thinking. The myriad of other issues that were given to dump Howard and embrace Rudd–fresh ideas, blind support of the Australia/US alliance and an ability to tame the Labor Party left–were of secondary importance.
Rudd is a conservative Christian, Chinese-speaking former diplomat who remains relatively unknown. Canberra journalist Nicholas Stuart, author of Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorized Political Biography, says that the new prime minister is “like a glass and we’re pouring our hopes and our ideas into him and, because he is empty, we see them reflected back.” His optimism may be short-lived.
Although Rudd has pledged to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and remove Australia’s combat troops from Iraq–clear policy differences with his predecessor–Rudd has maintained a “hard line” on antiterrorism measures, despite systematic failures over the past few years in bringing terror suspects to trial: a senior counterterrorism officer with the Australian Federal Police admitted in a recent botched trial that his team in 2004 was “directed, we were informed, to lay as many charges under the new terrorist legislation against as many suspects as possible because we wanted to use the new legislation.” It is unlikely that a Rudd government will fundamentally alter the extremes of the current laws. One can hope that he will repair the breakdown in trust between the Muslim community and the federal government after years of Howard’s rhetorical demonization of a minority vital to isolating terrorists.
Rudd entered the Australian Parliament in 1998 and opposed independence for East Timor. Labor’s former foreign affairs spokesman, Laurie Brereton, once told former Labor leader Mark Latham, “Mate, he [Rudd] says whatever the Americans want him to say. They own him lock, stock and barrel.” As a member of the American-Australian Leadership Dialogue–an annual event designed to unite the foreign policy elites of both countries–he told this year’s conference that “despite Iraq, America is an overwhelming force for good in the world. It is time we sang that from the worlds’ rooftops.” He concluded with a flourish of hyperbole: “I would say this to this gathering here in Melbourne tonight: there is no greater challenge or opportunity I look forward to more than working with the great American democracy, the arsenal of freedom, in bringing about long-term changes to our planet.”
Shortly before the election, Rudd announced that in government he would join a coterie of discredited neoconservatives to take Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the International Court of Justice for inciting genocide. He was determined to prove his Zionist credentials to a powerful Jewish community that viewed Howard as Australia’s greatest pro-Israel prime minister. His then-foreign affairs spokesman, Robert McClelland, claimed that “the alternative to not using these international legal mechanisms is considering wholesale invasion of countries, which itself involves obviously expense but more relevantly, of course, the potential for significant loss of life.”
It was an absurd juxtaposition. Was a senior Labor figure seriously suggesting that the only alternative to legal proceedings against Iran’s president was an unprovoked attack against the country’s supposed nuclear facilities? It remains unclear whether Rudd would support an American-led military strike against the Islamic Republic.
On the domestic front, many of Rudd’s plans remain unclear, but in an interview published the day before the election, he pledged to maintain many of the Howard government’s tough and UN-condemned policies on refugees, such as turning back seaworthy boats and not raising the intake of Afghan refugees, despite claiming that his government may raise the number of Australian troops in the war-ravaged country to manage the steadily deteriorating situation. He refused to commit in his first term to a referendum on Aboriginal reconciliation, something Howard promised before the election. Leading indigenous leader Noel Pearson was outraged, calling the move an “absolute betrayal” (though Rudd has now announced he will issue an apology in 2008 to Aboriginal people for their past mistreatment.)
Rudd’s victory signifies a win for consensus politics, the decision of issuing no-risk policies and therefore expecting little public outrage. Both the Liberal government and the media regularly referred to Rudd as the master of the “me-too” gesture, constantly agreeing with Howard and negating the former prime minister’s ability to wedge him on key issues. It may be clever politics, but it’s unlikely to inspire a population increasingly convinced that players on both sides of the fence essentially agree with each other on major policy. Perhaps this is comforting when choosing Rudd over Howard and knowing the country’s psyche may only shift slightly. The power of the Greens, now Australia’s third political force, continues to grow; it gained around 8 percent of the vote.
Australia, like many other comparable Western democracies, has become resistant to change and embraces conservatism over liberalism. Now, one of the greatest tests of the new government will be its ability to truly govern for all and not incite racial division. Australia’s history is filled with profound discrimination against various ethnic groups and its indigenous population. It is also the land of the “fair-go”; a commitment to evenhandedness is embedded deep in the country’s DNA. The Howard government saw a diminishing of that tradition. Rudd is unlikely to bridge the gap and forge a nation fully reconciled with its past and governed independently in its present, but the future is currently looking slightly brighter. The flame may well be extinguished soon enough.