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Howard's End

Despite his crushing defeat, Australia's John Howard leaves a considerable legacy.

2:42 PM, Nov 28, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Elsewhere in Asia, Howard signed historic defense pacts with Japan and the Philippines, moved closer to India (another eager consumer of Australia's minerals), and deployed troops to troubled areas along the Pacific Rim's "arc of instability." He also deepened security ties with Indonesia, a process that gained steam after 88 Australians died in the 2002 Bali terrorist attack. As Howard put it in 1996, "Australia does not have to choose between its history and its geography." In other words, it can be both a close Anglosphere ally of America and Britain and a reliable partner for its Asian neighbors.

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.

Finally, what about the culture wars? Though Howard is rightly known as a scourge of political correctness and a skeptic of multiculturalism, he wound up increasing overall immigration to Australia, despite taking a hard line against illegal immigration and using border protection as a campaign theme in 2001. When dealing with indigenous Australians, Howard promoted practical steps toward assimilation. He unashamedly celebrated "Australian values" and called for a balanced teaching of history in the schools. "In a very real sense," writes Albrechtsen, "Howard brought the national conversation into a more sensible, central place. A place Rudd accepts and can change only at great risk to his political legitimacy."

That may be an exaggeration. But it seems clear that Howard shifted Australia in a conservative direction. "He has moved the whole country to the right," Peter Hartcher, political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, told me. "No question." Whether the pendulum will swing back under Rudd remains to be seen.

Duncan Currie is managing editor of The American.