By Tim Johnston
Prime Minister John Howard of Australia on Sunday announced general
elections for Nov. 24, pitting one of Australia’s most legendary
political survivors against a resurgent opposition that maintains a
commanding lead in opinion polls.
A formidable politician who has destroyed his opposition in four
consecutive elections, Howard, 68, and his governing coalition face an
uphill battle against the Labor Party, which one newspaper poll over
the weekend showed to be 18 percentage points ahead, 41 to 59 percent.
"The coming election boils down to a single question: Which side of
politics has what it takes to keep Australia strong, prosperous and
secure into the future?" Howard said Friday.
"The choice is between a coalition team with a clear policy agenda
and a record of doing what’s right for Australia and an untested,
union-dominated Labor Party that has failed to spell out how it would
make our country better."
The Labor Party needs to win an additional 17 seats in the
150-member Parliament to wrest control from the governing coalition,
which consists of Howard’s Liberal Party and the National Party.
If voters bear out the polls, the opposition will win by a comfortable margin, gaining as much as 20 seats.
There are even signs that Howard, who has been prime minister for 11
years, might suffer the ultimate indignity: losing in his own suburban
Sydney constituency, which would be the first time a sitting prime
minister has lost his seat in an election since 1929.
Howard is known as one of Australia’s wiliest and most dogged
politicians, however, and few commentators are willing to write his
political obituary yet.
The opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, has been riding high ever since
he took over as Labor Party leader in December last year. Since then he
has survived the sort of political storms that derailed his
predecessors, including reports of a drunken visit to a strip club in
New York, questions about his personal judgement and his family
background. But little of the mud seems to have tarnished his standing
in the eyes of voters, and there have been only minor pauses in his
seemingly inexorable rise in the polls.
"What I offer the Australian people now is a plan of action," Rudd
said Sunday. "I’m offering new leadership, a plan for the future and a
clear cut commitment to work for the future."
What is clear is that the characters of the two main protagonists
are going to feature prominently in the campaign: John Howard, the
older, more experienced country lawyer with a straight-talking
combative streak, versus Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat, younger, more
cerebral and married to a hugely successful businesswoman.
The economy, labor legislation and the environment are all expected to feature prominently in the coming weeks.
The Australian economy has gone from strength to strength during the
Howard administration. Critics have said that has more to do with the
global rise in the price of major Australian export commodities like
iron ore and coal, but Howard argues that changing the government could
threaten that affluence.
"By common agreement, Australia is enjoying a remarkable level of
national prosperity at the present time, but I believe very
passionately that this country’s best years can lie ahead of us, in the
years immediately ahead," he said Sunday.
"But that won’t happen automatically and in order for that to happen
this country does not need new leadership, it does not need old
leadership, it needs the right leadership and the right leadership is
the leadership that delivers the team that knows how to do the job."
One benefit of the strong economy is that it has filled the coffers
of the treasury to overflowing, allowing both sides to make extravagant
promises to the electorate.
Between the coalition and the Labor Party, over the past few weeks
politicians have promised more than $20 billion in public money for
everything from roads to mental health.
The Howard government is nonetheless vulnerable on some economic
fronts. One of his most important pieces of legislation was designed to
encourage business by making workplace practices more flexible.
Business and industry are enthusiastic supporters of the Industrial
Relations legislation, but it has played out badly with much of the
work force, who believe that it has made jobs less secure.
The legislation cost Howard much of the youth vote. The weekend poll
in the newspaper The Sun-Herald, which looked at voters in the
country’s two most populous states, indicated that 73 percent of voters
under 29 intended to vote Labor.
The respondents cited the new workplace legislation as being high on
their list of concerns, but young voters were also worried about the
The Howard government has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on
Climate Change, saying it would harm the economy, and Howard’s recent
moves to put the environment on the agenda seem to have done little to
convince voters, particularly younger voters, that he is serious about
tackling the problem.
Howard has also been a stalwart ally in President George W. Bush’s
war on terrorism. That has not helped him at the polls, and the Labor
Party has said that it will push for a timetable for the withdrawal of
Australian troops from Iraq, but both the main parties competing in the
election have said that the United States will remain Australia’s most
important ally for the foreseeable future.