President Bush recently traveled to Australia to thank conservative Prime Minister John Howard for making that country a member of the "coalition of the willing" U.S. allies in the occupation of Iraq.
Bush’s trip was supposed to shore Howard up as national elections approached. Instead, the president planted what turned out to be a political kiss of death on his most willing accomplice.
When the votes from Down Under were counted Saturday, it was instantly clear that the vast majority of Australians are no longer willing to participate in the American president’s misadventure in the Middle East.
Bush’s "Australian poodle" is no longer in charge.
In fact, Howard has been so thoroughly rejected that he’s likely to be out of Australian politics altogether.
After a landslide shift to the left by the Australian electorate, Howard — who was every bit as nasty and gaffe-prone as his pal Dick Cheney — will be replaced by a left-leaning intellectual who was elected on a platform that promised to withdraw his country’s troops from Iraq and to develop a new foreign policy that will be more independent of the United States.
As in Spain, Italy and a number of other former "coalition of the willing" countries, the Australian electorate has effectively voted the troops home. Australia has only about 500 troops in Iraq, but that contingent is one of the larger of the non-U.S. "coalition" forces left in the country.
Australia’s abandonment of the Iraq project is not the only change that is coming to the country that had, under Howard’s leadership, been the steadiest U.S. ally of the Bush era.
The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, will adopt a radically different approach than his predecessor did when it comes to global warming. Where Howard was one of Bush’s few allies in international debates about climate change, Rudd promises to sign the Kyoto Protocol and to make Australia a greener and more pleasant land. (He’ll be assisted by his Labour Party’s pointman on environmental issues: Peter Garrett, the long-time lead singer of the rock band Midnight Oil, a veteran anti-nuclear weapons campaigner who left the stage to become a member of parliament.)
So committed is Rudd to shifting his country’s approach to climate change that the new prime minister is expected to lead Australia’s delegation to the upcoming United Nations climate change conference in Bali.
Rudd is no radical. He’s the mildest of socialists in what is today only a mildly socialist Labour Party. But compared with Howard, who followed the Bush line so slavishly, Rudd promises a welcome change of course for a nation that remains a significant player in the politics of the planet.
And Rudd has a mandate. After 11 years out of power, Labour went into Saturday’s election with a 16-seat deficit in the parliament. It now has a majority of at least 22 seats over Howard’s right-wing Liberal party. Among the many prominent Liberals who appear to be headed for defeat is the prime minister, who acknowledged late Saturday that he is likely to become the first head of government to lose his own seat since 1929.
To understand the scale of the rejection of Howard — who has for 33 years represented the historically conservative seat for Bennelong in suburban Sydney — imagine Bush losing in the Houston suburbs. Of course, recent surveys have consistently shown that a majority of Texans disapprove of the American president — indeed, a July Survey USA poll found that 57 percent of the voters in Bush’s home state object to his approach. So, perhaps, the only difference between Australia and America is that there was an election in Australia Saturday. Had there been one in the U.S., it wouldn’t just be the poodle who was tossed out — the master would have gone, too.