Rudd was a safe bet

Peter Wilby on Australian voters and the vision thing

In Australia, as all schoolchildren know, everything's upside down. The sun's in the north, the water goes down the plughole anti-clockwise, and they celebrate Christmas in midsummer. Australian politics is similar. Like us, they had one party that privatised and cut taxes through the 1980s. Then another party took charge in the mid-1990s and did more of the same. In Australia, however, the first party was Labour (or Labor, as they call it), the second the right-wing Liberal-National coalition. Now Labor is back in power and what happens here next, I guess, is that the Tories return. But we shouldn't take the parallels too far.

The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, is no Cameron or Blair. He so lacks glamour that Barry Humphries compares him to a dentist. Noted for his intellect, work ethic and control freakery, Rudd might be compared to Gordon Brown, except that he prefers to extract and eat earwax rather than stuff from his nose.

The Liberal prime minister John Howard had delivered more than a decade of uninterrupted economic growth, in which wealth doubled and unemployment fell to a 30-year low. "This should have been an unlosable election," says Andrew Charlton, an Australian economist and author of Ozonomics (Random House Australia). "For an opposition leader to win it, after being in the job less than a year, is an extraordinary political event."

So what was Rudd's secret? Did he have a new social democratic vision?

This was described as the world's first green election. Howard, a notorious global warming sceptic, refused to sign the Kyoto treaty. Yet Australians, facing unprecedented droughts, bushfires and the ruination of spectacular natural features, are in the front line of climate change. Rudd said he would sign Kyoto, oppose nuclear power and spend A$200m (£90m) on protecting the Great Barrier Reef. Crucially, however, he slapped down his environment spokesman, who said he would agree to reductions in carbon emissions even if India and China didn't. In general, Labor's policies included lots about renewable energy, clean coal and solar schools, but nothing about restricting car use, airline flights or rubbish disposal.

Rudd also promised to say sorry to Aborigines and to make education a priority. "Australia is one of the few OECD countries where investment in higher education has gone down," says Tom Bentley, a former Demos director now at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. At the same time, Rudd emphasised his economic conservatism. When Howard tried a few old-fashioned electoral bribes, Rudd denounced his "irresponsible spending spree". So, rather as Tony Blair did with us Brits in 1997, Rudd offered Australians an opportunity to feel better about themselves without threatening the comforts of prosperity.

But none of that is sufficient to explain a victory. Something has to drive people away from an incumbent government. In Howard's case, it was his 2006 WorkChoices legislation, which imposed restrictions on industrial action and removed unfair dismissal protection from thousands of workers. Soon after WorkChoices, one multinational firm told its cleaners to accept a 20 per cent pay cut or be fired. Howard thus fractured the electoral coalition that had kept him in power: a combination of what Charlton calls "the economic conservatives at the big end of town and the social conservatives at the small end". The latter, battling with debt and rising living costs, felt threatened.

They had deserted Labor in 1996 and become known as "Howard's battlers", buying in to his politics of aspiration. Now, as Charlton says, "they found they had no rights any more".

Like Margaret Thatcher with her poll tax, Howard just went too far.

Rudd didn't promise the status quo ante: for example, Labor will restore unfair dismissal protection to some employees, but not all. But he offered workers a sufficiently credible alternative to Howard's regime of endemic job security without causing a ripple of concern in the financial markets.

His formula for getting into power was the same as the one now followed by nearly all other centre-left parties in western democracies: convince the electors you are safe and wait for the governing party to foul up. The vision thing, I'm afraid, doesn't come into it.

Don't miss Tom Bentley's profile of a href="">Kevin Rudd from our Australia special

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future