The Magazine

Howard's End

Australia's prime minister no longer connects with voters.

Jun 4, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 36 • By MAX BOOT
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Everyone knows that in a few weeks' time George W. Bush will lose his closest international ally when Tony Blair steps down as Britain's prime minister. Less well known is that just behind Blair in the exit queue may be the foreign leader who is arguably a close second in the president's affections--Prime Minister John Howard of Australia.

Howard, who has been in office since 1996, is already Australia's second-longest-serving premier, having won four elections, the most recent in 2004. He has staged some remarkable come-from-behind wins in the past, but he will have to top them all if he is to prevail in this year's balloting, probably in the fall. A recent Newspoll shows Howard's Liberal party--the name, confusingly enough, of Australia's conservatives--running well behind Labor, 59 percent to 41 percent. In the past, Howard has managed to win largely on the basis of his personal appeal, but now voters say by a 49-percent to 37-percent margin that they prefer his younger rival, Kevin Rudd, who took over leadership of the opposition this past December.

What accounts for Howard's slide? And what are the implications for the America-Australia alliance? I asked those questions of a number of political observers and participants in Canberra and Sydney recently. The most widely cited answer to the former question is fatigue and complacency. After 11 years, and notwithstanding a strong economy and a popular new budget, voters are tired of Howard's government. In a way, his success is his downfall. The economy is growing so strongly that many Australians seem willing to risk a change of government, especially when the alternative does not seem especially threatening.

Rudd is conservative for a Laborite, a nerdy former diplomat and management consultant in boxy spectacles who speaks Chinese fluently and goes to church regularly (he was brought up Catholic but now attends Anglican services). He has few ties to the unions which have traditionally been a dominant force mooring his party to the left. He is seen as a safe pair of hands to continue steering Australia ahead--a Tony Blair to Howard's Margaret Thatcher.

For that reason few expect any change of government to much affect the close relationship between Australia and the United States. While Rudd has opposed the Iraq war, he has not made opposition to U.S. policy a theme of his campaign, the way previous Labor leader Mark Latham did in 2004. Latham promised to pull Aussie troops out of Iraq by Christmas if elected--a pledge he made without consulting Rudd, his shadow foreign minister.

That kind of tactic doesn't play well in Australia; Latham wound up getting thumped at the polls. Rudd isn't repeating that mistake. He is running as a pro-American (and pro-Israel) candidate. Although a Laborite, Rudd has arguably been less critical of the United States than the current Conservative leader in Britain, David Cameron.

Indeed, Rudd went out of his way to reassure Dick Cheney, during the vice president's February visit to Oz, that even though he does plan to pull Australia's 550 troops from southern Iraq, he will not necessarily do so immediately, and he will maintain another 1,000 Australian personnel in and around Iraq to support coalition operations. Rudd also has backed Howard's plan to more than double, to almost 1,000, the number of Australian troops in Afghanistan.

From the White House perspective, it will still be a blow if Howard loses office. Along with his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, Howard has been one of the world's most stalwart defenders of the global war on terror and most eloquent critics of trendy anti-Americanism. But Rudd's accession would not occasion a crisis with one of America's two closest Pacific allies (the other being Japan). Even with China now having become Australia's second largest trading partner (after Japan), most folks Down Under, Labor or Liberal, know that, in the final analysis, their survival and safety rest with their American mates. Just as America came to the rescue in 1942, with Douglas MacArthur taking charge when Japanese invasion seemed imminent, so Australians count on America to bail them out of any future crisis.

They, in turn, are willing to help the United States carry out mutual foreign policy objectives. Australia is the only country to have fought alongside the United States in all of its major wars of the past 100 years; the Aussies, unlike the Brits, didn't opt out of Vietnam.