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Rudd Changes the Aussie Guard

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: November 26, 2007

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The conservative four-term Prime Minister John Howard, one of Washington’s most reliable allies, was swept from power Saturday by Kevin Rudd, the reformist leader of the Labor Party. Rudd's victory, with well over 50 percent of the vote (BBC), comes as Australia is experiencing a significant demographic shift due to a major influx of Asian ethnic groups into the population.

Howard and his Liberal Party, which railed against multicultural political correctness in past campaigns, sought to shift gears on the issue when preelection polls showed Rudd leading. But Australian analysts suggest immigrants, a relatively new voting bloc as Australian politics goes, might have been the pivotal factor in his defeat (The Age). Howard’s own parliamentary district in Bennelong, a Sydney suburb, once predominantly European, now has double the national average of non-English speaking residents (Bloomberg). The Migration Policy Institute, an independent, U.S.-based think tank, suggests about one-third of all Australian immigrants now hail from Asia. Soon after winning, Rudd promised the new government will issue a formal apology to Aborigines (BBC) for abuses suffered in the past. Outgoing Prime Minister Howard had refused to offer such an apology.

Lately Howard began praising Asian entrepreneurial and family values (Salon). But Rudd, a fluent Chinese-speaker who promised to help fight poverty and promote development in Asia, proved too good a campaigner. He promised, among other things, to increase investment in Australia’s Asian-language studies “to equip the next generation of Australians with the languages of the major economies (AP) of the future.” Under Howard's leadership, the Australian economy has enjoyed its longest boom period since the 19th century. But, as this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal argued, Howard should have stepped down while he was still popular.

Rudd's displacement of Howard is not expected to be a sharp policy reversal for the United States. While the Howard years have been strongly pro-American, Rudd is not viewed as anti-American by any stretch of the imagination, analysts say. Rudd opposed the Iraq War, but he supports Australia’s deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq (some 1,575 Australian personnel are deployed in and around Iraq). And, as CFR Fellow Max Boot has noted, Rudd chose not to make Iraq an issue in the campaign. Iraq does not rank high in voter surveys (BBC) of their chief concerns, “perhaps because no Australian soldier has been killed as a result of enemy action.”  Rudd has pledged, like virtually every other leader of the dwindling “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, to begin a phased withdrawal of Australian forces sometime in 2008.

The most notable foreign policy change under Rudd may be on the environment. He has promised to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. This, as New York Times notes, will further isolate the United States, leaving it as the only industrialized country not to have signed on to Kyoto. A Rudd government may also bring a change in tone within Australia's Asia-Pacific neighborhood. The Economist says his plans to attend a United Nations conference on climate change in Bali in early December may be a sign that he means to make changes in Australia's relations with its neighbors. This could include a move away from the muscular diplomacy that led to an Australia-India defense agreement last summer. Australia has also deployed troops for peacekeeping in Papua New Guinea in 1998, to East Timor in 1999 and 2006, as well as a force in the Solomon Islands that aims to quell the violence that erupted after national elections in April 2006. Craig Snyder, director of the international relations postgraduate studies program at Deakin University in Melbourne, says “[f]or the Australian people, the more 'humanitarian' the mission, the greater the level of support is given.”

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