Rudd win ushers in new era for Australia politics

The Labor leader, to be sworn in as prime minister Thursday, gained ground with vows to shift policy on Iraq and climate change.

A tumultuous 24 hours propelled Australia into a new political era Sunday, with prime minister-elect Kevin Rudd offering generational change and fresh ideas on issues ranging from climate change to education.

Mr. Rudd will distance Australia from the United States in some respects by signing the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The former diplomat and Labor Party leader, who is expected to be sworn in and to name his cabinet Thursday, swept to power in Saturday's federal election, bringing to an end 11 years of conservative government under John Howard.

Like British Prime Minister Tony Blair before him, Mr. Howard was damaged by backing the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Rudd's pledge to sign Kyoto was also seen as key to his win at a time when the worst drought on record has focused Australians' minds on global warming.

Rudd announced Sunday that he would visit Washington early next year to discuss the withdrawal of Australia's tiny but politically significant 550 combat troops. He will keep in place another 1,000 military personnel, including Navy warships in the Persian Gulf and a diplomatic protection contingent in Baghdad.

Rudd has said that he is "rock solid" on the military alliance between Australia and the US. "I think there'll be awkwardness rather than embarrassment," says political scientist John Hart, an expert at the Australian National University. "The US is also talking about withdrawing troops, so I don't think they'll see this as a major problem in the bilateral relationship."

The man likely to become foreign minister also offered words of assurance to Washington. "Labor is not calling for a precipitous overnight withdrawal, and we are certainly not going to leave our American mates in the lurch," said Robert McClelland.

Further softening the blow is Rudd's commitment to maintain troops in Afghanistan and perhaps even to increase the numbers.

Bush, who counted Howard as a friend and praised him as a "man of steel," congratulated Rudd, and the White House issued a statement saying that "the president looks forward to working with this new government to continue our historic relationship."

Howard, Australia's second-longest serving prime minister, also congratulated Rudd and stated that, "We bequeath him a nation that is stronger, prouder, and more prosperous than it was 11-1/2 years ago."

But Howard looked likely even to lose his own seat, becoming the first sitting prime minister since 1929 to be dumped by voters. He has represented Bennelong, an electorate in Sydney, for 33 years. His hold there will be decided by tallying postal votes in the next few days.

In his victory speech in his home state of Queensland, Rudd promised to keep the economy strong. "Today, Australia has looked to the future," he said. "Tomorrow the work begins. It's time for a new page to be written in our nation's history."

A key paradox was why Howard, arguably the West's most successful contemporary conservative leader, lost when he has presided over an unprecedented economic boom, based in part on China's insatiable demand for coal and minerals gouged out of the Australian outback.

Howard warned voters that an inexperienced and union-linked Labor would wreck the economy. But Rudd cast himself as a safe and palatable alternative and played up his youth relative to Howard, who is often perceived as out of touch.

And despite his left-of-center past, Rudd paraded his credentials as a dedicated father of three, a committed Christian, and – crucially – an economic conservative whose wife is a self-made millionaire.

Climate change also loomed over the vote. Rudd has said he will attend next month's UN meeting on climate change in Bali. He has matched European commitments to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 60 percent of 2000 levels by 2050, and to encourage renewable energy. Australia's signing of Kyoto will leave the US as the only developed nation not to have ratified the treaty.

In the wake of the election, Labor not only controls the federal government, it also holds all eight of Australia's state and territory governments, leaving the Liberal Party in tatters.

Howard's deputy, treasurer Peter Costello, had been expected to assume the mantle of opposition leader, but in a surprise move, he announced that he was turning down the position. That raised the prospect of a leadership showdown between outgoing foreign minister, Alexander Downer, and former environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

A key factor in Howard's downfall was his introduction of industrial relations reforms that many Australians believed eroded workers' rights. Among Rudd's first goals is to scrap the reforms, known as WorkChoices.

"WorkChoices really did crack a substantial proportion of the so-called Howard battlers," said Julia Gillard, a former union lawyer set to become the first female deputy prime minister.

With 75 percent of the more than 13.5 million ballots counted, Labor won more than 53 percent and is set to hold up to 86 seats in the 150-seat parliament – a huge swing.

The government's crushing defeat prompted criticism that he should have stepped down a year ago in favor of Mr. Costello, who might have been able to combat Rudd's offer of a generational change. But it rescued the Labor Party from a decade-plus of infighting and political irrelevance.

"He sees himself as a modernist. He sees himself as a consensus leader. He'll govern from the center. He'll be like Tony Blair," says political analyst Paul Kelly from The Australian.

Rudd will cement already strong trade ties with China, a task made easier by the years he spent as a diplomat in Beijing and his fluency in Mandarin.

"He's the first leader of a Western democracy who can talk to the Chinese leadership in their own language," says Dr. Hart. "The US might see him as someone who could help them in China. It could provide a new aspect to the Australia-US alliance."

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