Rudd ends opposition years

Labor is back in power in Australia, but Frank Bongiorno questions, amid post-poll euphoria, how muc

Alongside coverage of Saturday’s election, the Australian media have been carrying a story of sixteen Indonesian asylum-seekers recently picked up by an Australian naval vessel from a leaking fishing boat. To members of the defeated Howard Government, the news of their delivery to immigration officials on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean on the day following the election must have seemed like a black joke; to the government’s enemies on the left, delicious irony.

At the 2001 election, the Coalition was saved from defeat by a combination of 9/11 and the government’s ruthless political exploitation of the arrival, also off Christmas Island, of the Norwegian tanker carrying asylum-seekers rescued by its captain.

The Tampa affair, as it was called, initiated the myth of John Howard’s invincibility, the belief in his almost magical ability to draw an electoral rabbit out of a hat. When Howard saw off another Labor challenger at the 2004 election after trailing in the polls for most of the year, some commentators claimed that he was unbeatable. Labor would only return to government, they forecast, once Howard had retired from public life.

On Saturday, voters dumped the Coalition government from office and Howard is almost certain to become only the second Prime Minister to lose his own seat. Australia has a new Labor Government led by a fifty year old former diplomat, Kevin Rudd.

This outcome should not have surprised anyone with the wit to examine the opinion polling. But most of Australia’s conservative commentariat refused, until faced with the actual results, to believe that their nation’s sagacious voters would be so ungrateful as to throw their favourite overboard.

The tortured logic by which they sought to show that the darkest of storm clouds were really only the harbingers of sunshine, the contortions designed to demonstrate why polls showing Labor ten, twelve or even fourteen points ahead were really a poor indication of what would come to pass, were ingenious.

On election day itself, the Opposition achieved a swing of over six per cent, Labor’s second largest since World War Two. It might win as many as 88 seats in a house of 150. Massive swings in New South Wales and Queensland were responsible for delivering government to Labor, although it won seats everywhere except Western Australia, where local factors helped the incumbent.

It’s no difficult matter to cobble together an explanation for this result. Australia’s economy is booming, but interest rates have increased six times since the 2004 election, undermining housing affordability. Radical industrial relations reforms were unpopular. Howard was slow to respond to climate change.

Labor offered a younger but reassuring leader, thereby providing electors with a viable alternative. The government had ruled for almost twelve years. Howard had undertaken to hand the Prime Ministership over to his Treasurer before the next election, making the bid for a fifth term look like an arrogant request for a lap of honour before retirement. The government ran a hopeless campaign; Labor’s was nearly faultless.

None of these factors individually, or even taken together, made the government’s defeat inevitable. Australians change their governments rarely, and Rudd is only the fifth Labor leader since Federation in 1901 to lead his party into government at an election.

There’s understandable euphoria among Labor supporters. One told me in an email that she found election night even more exciting than in 1972, when Gough Whitlam led Labor into government after twenty-three years; another, that she and her family had tears of joy in their eyes as the results came in.

But Rudd, in a gracious victory speech, began by paying tribute to his predecessor. Here was a hint of continuity, combined with enough talk about writing a ‘new page’ in the nation’s history to make electors feel like it was necessary to change government without unacceptable risk.

After all, the euphoria won’t last. But following more than a decade in the barren wilderness of Opposition, Labor powerbrokers will want to ensure that their government does.