In an Australian landslide, Rudd ends the Howard era

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration lost one of its staunchest political allies Saturday when Australians chose a Mandarin-speaking former farm boy to become their new prime minister.

Labor Party candidate Kevin Rudd swept to power in a landslide victory over Liberal incumbent John Howard, the second-longest serving prime minister in Australian history.

Unlike Howard, Rudd has pledged to pull combat troops from Iraq and to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a move that would leave the United States as the only major industrialized country to shun the initiative regulating greenhouse gases. But the incoming leader is not expected to jeopardize the strong ties Howard has built with Washington over the years after a campaign fought mainly on domestic issues.

Rudd, a former diplomat who served in Stockholm and Beijing, won despite his relative political inexperience and a strong economy. Many voters were fed up on a host of domestic issues that had dogged the incumbent: interest rate increases that Howard had failed to rein in despite promising to do so, workplace reforms that have proved disastrous, and his promise if reelected to retire midterm and hand over the office to his deputy, who would thereby assume power without having to face voters directly.


Rudd’s win, analysts say, was also due in no small part to an electorate that was ready for a fresh start after more than a decade of Howard’s conservative leadership.

“This is about a generational change,” said Alan Dupont, director of the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. Howard’s government was “seen as competent on economic issues,” he said. “But after 11 years, it’s very hard for one party to win for five terms.”

At 50, the blond and boyish Rudd is 18 years Howard’s junior, and voters quickly warmed to him. Polls showed him leading the incumbent for months before election day, but the results exceeded expectations.

Labor needed to win 76 seats in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament to wrest control of the government. Initial results indicated that the party had won at least 84.


A jubilant Rudd -- flanked by his wife, Therese Rein, and their three children -- began his victory speech by quieting the cheering crowd with the words “OK, guys.”

But there is little that is casual about Rudd, who transformed the fate of the Australian Labor Party after taking over its stewardship less than a year ago, becoming the most popular opposition leader in 30 years.

“Today Australia has looked to the future,” Rudd said after acknowledging Howard’s long public service. “It’s time for a new page to be written in our nation’s history.”

For Howard, a four-term incumbent who critics say doomed his political fortunes by hanging on for too long, the end of the era may have come with a slap in the face: In addition to losing the prime minister post, he was likely to lose his seat in Parliament, and would become the first sitting prime minister since 1929 to be kicked out of his own Parliament seat in his home district. His legacy includes forging a strong bond with the United States. Howard was in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the defense and security treaty between the U.S. and Australia. He was one of the first Western leaders to back President Bush’s “coalition of the willing” to battle terrorism and has been in lock-step with Bush on most foreign policy issues since.


Calling Howard “a good friend and ally,” the White House in a statement Saturday said Howard had “served the people of Australia well by pursuing policies that led to strong economic growth and a commitment to keeping Australians safe by fighting extremists and their ideology around the world.”

The statement also congratulated Rudd. “The United States and Australia have long been strong partners and allies and the president looks forward to working with this new government to continue our historic relationship,” it said.

Choosing to accentuate the positive, Howard told his constituents during his concession speech that his government was handing over to the Labor Party “a nation that is stronger and prouder, more prosperous than it was 11 1/2 years ago” when he assumed office.

Outward differences aside, there is little to distinguish Labor from the current government, especially in terms of foreign policy, analysts say. Rudd made a point to acknowledge Australia’s ties with other governments, calling the U.S. “our great friend and ally.” He said he “looked forward to working in partnership” with all nations.


The victory was a moment of great personal triumph for Rudd. The youngest of four children, he grew up poor on a Queensland dairy farm and was raised by his widowed mother, a nurse who was once evicted and forced to sleep in her car with her children. Rudd, who lost his father when he was 11 and his mother a few years ago, referred to his parents in his victory remarks.

“He’d be surprised about tonight,” Rudd said. “I salute them and the values they delivered their son.”

The prime minister-designate, who listed as one of his campaign planks fighting for the rights of Australia’s working families, thanked his own family, especially his wife of 26 years, whom he referred to as his “life partner.”

She built a highly successful job placement agency from scratch and has had to put part of her company up for sale to avoid a potential conflict of interest and to support her husband’s political ambitions. “Darling, I really appreciate it,” he said.


As one of the few countries in the world where voting is mandatory for citizens older than 18, practically all adults showed up at the polling booths Saturday. This being nearly summertime for the land Down Under, that meant early morning swimmers in bikinis and bridesmaids in spaghetti-strapped gowns. There were even ballot boxes in hospital maternity wards and one sent out to researchers in Antarctica.

“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” said David Ross, 38, a father of two who works on the Sydney Harbor ferries. “But Labor supporters might be disappointed. After 11 years of frustration with Howard, Rudd won’t be able to deliver nearly as much as people want him to.”