Matt Schiavenza blogs about the Aussie expat reaction to John Howard’s election defeat, as well as the incoming prime minister’s Sino-centric language skills:
At The Box, one of Kunming’s popular watering holes, the mood last night was jovial. The Australian general election results came in and Labor scored a decisive victory, booting long-tenured Prime Minister John Howard and his Liberal Party from office. Aussie expats, like their American counterparts, tend to be decidedly left-wing. As a result, many high-fives and celebratory cheers were exchanged. The Americans in attendance wistfully called for a similar result in our own election next year.
Like most people outside of Australasia, I have never paid much attention to Australian politics. Yet John Howard was a distinctly loathsome figure, perhaps the only leader outside of the United States to match President Bush’s belligerent, hawkish rhetoric. Howard was no Tony Blair- a brilliant politician felled by a monumental error in supporting Iraq. Howard was a neocon’s neocon. He marched lockstep with Bush and never questioned the White House’s prosecution of the war. For that, he paid the ultimate political price.
So who becomes the new Australian premier? Kevin Rudd. The Labour Party head campaigned on two central issues: reversing Howard’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and removing Australian troops from Iraq. What interests me about Rudd, though, is his background. In the 1980s, he served in the Australian diplomatic corps in Beijing, acquiring fluent Mandarin in the process. Earlier in the year, Rudd made quite a splash in China by delivering a speech in Mandarin in front of the suitably impressed President Hu Jintao.
A “neocon’s neocon” is a silly pejorative,* but one point is clear: Howard, like Spain’s Jose Aznar, like the Congressional Republicans, and to a lesser extent, Tony Blair, is out of the picture because of the war in Iraq. Most right-wing Australians I know (I suppose Tianjin has more than Kunming) were cool to the Liberal Party — or even opposed to Howard — because of the war and the perceived marriage of interests between Washington and Canberra.
There’s also a systemic factor at work in Howard’s defeat: Australia has mandatory voting laws, so if you moderately disliked (or were just tired of) Howard and you were forced to vote, you might have voted against his party, whereas in America, if you moderately disliked Bush in 2004, you might have sat on your hands instead of voted. In an American-style system Howard might still be in office.
In retrospect, Howard was a successful pol for the most part — nearly 12 years in office hardly constitutes failure. It might also, unlike Matt’s characterization, suggest some degree of political brilliance, especially given the high rate of Australian political participation. But Bush has this magic power to drag down everyone he calls a friend, and John Howard couldn’t escape that curse.
The above having been said, it’ll be interesting to see what Rudd does vis-a-vis China, and it’s always admirable to have a Mandarin-speaking executive. However, there are two points to dampen anyone’s hopes of Sino-Oz unity.
First, save for continuing the longstanding US-Australian-Japan security arrangements, Howard’s relationship with China wasn’t exactly “hostile,” so most friendly shifts towards China by Rudd would be almost imperceptible to most observers.
Second, friendly relations with China may have actually contributed to Howard’s defeat. As the IHT observes,
Much of Australia’s economic boom has been fueled by the windfall profits from China’s rise. Australia supplies much of the coal and iron ore that make China’s explosive growth possible. But the benefits have not been evenly distributed across Australia, accruing mainly to the mining states of Western Australia and Queensland and leaving pockets of deep hardship in the country’s most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria.
So when Howard said this year that “working families have never had it so good,” he alienated many of his supporters and gave Labor a tag line that became a refrain of their successful campaign.
Any policy shifts by incoming Prime Minister Rudd to balance this economic growth — possibly by masking it under the aegis of Midnight Oil-powered environmental protection — would likely be seen as negative in the PRC.
We should remember that when dealing with Beijing, it’s not just military policy but also economic and environmental policy that is interpreted as “anti-China.” In the eyes of many Chinese officials and academics, Bush’s strongest “anti-China” moves, aside from the Hainan spy plane incident, were his use of anti-China trade barriers and pressure to revalue the RMB — moves called for and supported by Democrats more than Republicans. Add to this their natural “ownership” of the human rights issue and the Bush administration’s opponents on the left can be seen as more “anti-China” than the supposed “emperor” himself.
If 2007 and 2008 prove to be good years for the new left in Australia and America, they may also, in the end, signal the worsening of Sino-Western relations — at least so long as the left’s policies match their campaign rhetoric.
* I won’t engage in a tired debate about the meaning of neocon, but, like fascist, it’s one of those terms ridiculously overused as an epithet.