Despite his crushing defeat, Australia's John Howard leaves a considerable legacy.
2:42 PM, Nov 28, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
UNTIL THIS PAST WEEKEND, John Howard was the great survivor of Australian national politics. In May 1989 he was sacked as leader of the center-right Liberal Party, and quipped that a return to the leadership post would be like "Lazarus with a triple bypass." A few months earlier, a popular Aussie news magazine had dubbed Howard "Mr. 18 Percent," referring to his abysmal poll numbers. But "Lazarus" would rise from the dead, and eventually become one of the most successful prime ministers in Australian history. After regaining the party leadership in 1995, he won four straight federal elections (in 1996, 1998, 2001, and 2004). Tom Switzer, opinion page editor of the Australian newspaper, liked to joke that whenever Howard received a kiss of death it "amounted to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation."
But not this time. In Saturday's federal election, the center-left Australian Labor Party won a landslide victory, securing majorities in both the House of Representatives (where the government is formed) and the Senate. It even appears that Howard will lose his own Sydney-area parliamentary seat. Supporters of the prime minister-elect, 50-year-old Labor leader Kevin Rudd, claim he has a popular mandate to pursue a host of workplace, environmental, and other reforms. Labor also controls every single one of Australia's state and territorial governments. The Liberal Party is in shambles.
To be sure, Howard does not deserve all the credit. It was actually a Labor government in the 1980s that floated the currency, slashed tariffs, deregulated the financial markets, and revamped the labor structure. Coupled with tax cuts and privatization, these reforms were critical to opening the Aussie economy and setting the table for future growth. According to John Edwards, chief economist at HSBC Bank Australia, "Between 1991 and 2005 real income per head increased 32 percent in Canada, 35 percent in the U.S., 36 percent in New Zealand, and 38 percent in the U.K., the four Anglo economies to which Australia is often compared. In Australia real income per head increased 43 percent over the period." Despite dire predictions, Australia sailed through the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis relatively unscathed. In recent years, the mineral-rich "lucky country" has benefited from the combination of high commodity prices and China's seemingly insatiable demand for raw materials (especially coal, iron ore, and natural gas).
That gets to one of Howard's most significant foreign policy triumphs: proving that warm relations with the United States and China are not mutually exclusive. On back-to-back days in October 2003, George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Canberra, the Australian capital. "We're trusted by both sides," Arthur Sinodinos, Howard's former chief of staff, told me. "We have strong interests in developing our relationships with both the Chinese and the Americans." Howard signed a free trade agreement with the United States, and Australia is currently negotiating one with Beijing. In late August, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released data showing that mainland China had eclipsed Japan to become Australia's top trading partner.
Howard got on famously with President Bush, and he vigorously supported the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although Rudd plans to withdraw Aussie combat troops from Iraq, the U.S.-Australia alliance should remain sturdy (if less chummy). Indeed, Rudd is said to be firmly pro-American. Some pundits reckon he is the Australian version of Tony Blair: a centrist type who will modernize the Labor Party and make it more market-friendly.
"On economics, Howard dragged Labor to the center," writes Janet Albrechtsen, a conservative Australian columnist. "Just as Ronald Reagan's legacy forced Bill Clinton to announce in January 1996 that 'the era of big government is over,' Howard forced Kevin Rudd to do the same." But Labor's left-wing old guard remains closely tied to the unions, and Rudd has vowed to scrap WorkChoices. He also has pledged to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which Howard rejected.
Duncan Currie is managing editor of The American.