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Howard's End By: Duncan Currie
AEI.org | Friday, November 30, 2007

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.

Now the second-guessing starts. Should Howard have stepped down as party leader a year earlier and allowed his longtime treasurer, Peter Costello, to contest the election? Should he have acted sooner on climate change? Were his fourth-term industrial relations reforms, known as "WorkChoices," too ambitious? Throughout the campaign, Labor painted the 68-year-old prime minister as being out of touch. Howard's experience may have been an asset, but his longevity in office (nearly 12 years) worked against him. Voters wanted new leadership, provided it was competent. The nerdy Rudd--a former foreign service officer, fluent Mandarin speaker, vocal Christian, and self-described "economic conservative"--seemed like a safe bet.

Despite his crushing defeat, Howard leaves a considerable legacy. He guaranteed full independence for the Reserve Bank of Australia, overhauled the tax system, expanded foreign trade, eliminated the government's debt, and moved the budget into surplus. In his final term, he completed the privatization of Telstra, the communications giant, and reformed industrial relations via the WorkChoices legislation. Earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund praised Australia for its "exemplary macroeconomic management." Unemployment is now hovering around a 33-year low, and GDP growth remains strong. "We are living through possibly the greatest accumulation of wealth, personal and corporate, that this country has seen, at least in the post-colonial era," writes Australian business journalist Steve Burrell.

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.

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.

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