Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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World Will Feel Aftershocks of Aussie "Quake"

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday, December 2/07

Zack Gross

The Sydney Morning Herald called it “an earthquake
.”  The second longest serving Prime Minister in Australian history, John Howard, went down to decisive defeat at the polls a week ago, signaling the beginning of major changes in the national and international political climate of our times. 

Whether the issue is climate change, the “war on terrorism,” labour policy or aboriginal issues, new Labour PM Kevin Rudd, a 50-year old former diplomat, opposes the status quo and will bring pressure to bear on conservative incumbents such as US President George Bush and Canada’s Stephen Harper.

John Howard’s almost 12-year reign in Australia’s top office, although he called his government a Liberal coalition, was marked by strong support of US foreign and environmental policy.  Howard, along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair – now also gone and replaced by a more traditional Labourite in Gordon Brown – had been called George Bush’s Deputy Sheriff.  He sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and intervened in conflict situations in the Asia-Pacific. 

Rudd plans to pull his combat troops out of Iraq and leave only diplomatic guards in that war zone.

Howard also refused to sign the Kyoto Accord and, until recently, refused to acknowledge the reality of climate change.  The Guardian newspaper referred to the Australian election as “the world’s first climate change election

The past five years have seen droughts and crop failures Down Under, and the electorate understood that Howard’s ideological stance was hurting their environment and their economy.  At the same time, ironically, Australia’s economy has benefited from its shipment of coal and iron to the booming but environmentally damaging Chinese industrial juggernaut.

A recent decision by Howard to build one of the world’s largest pulp mills in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley, a lush expanse of orchards, forest and farmland, sealed his fate, as it drove away even his supporters in the business community. 

New PM Rudd has already been invited to this month’s major United Nations meeting on climate change in Bali, Indonesia.  Rudd’s leadership on the issue will further isolate the US and Canada on the world stage. 

At Commonwealth meetings in Uganda late last month, Harper and Australia’s out-going administration were “credited” with blocking progress on binding emission commitments from developed countries post 2012, when the current Kyoto Agreement ends.

During his tenure, John Howard also refused to apologize to the indigenous Australian aborigines for past indignities, including the forcible removal of children from their families.  He claimed that current generations should not be made to feel guilty about mistakes of the past.  Public opinion, however, supported making an official apology and Rudd promised during the election campaign to do so.  At his first press conference as PM, that commitment was renewed and time-tabled for the coming year.  This situation has many parallels with Canada and other countries where original citizens have endured, and still face, poverty, discrimination and violence.

Howard touted himself as the best manager of a booming economy during the election.  He may have ultimately gone too far, however, in implementing his conservative fiscal policies during his final term, as he brought in regulations to weaken organized labour.  This led to public demonstrations and the defection of many who had supported him in the past.  Voters felt insecure as they feared for their jobs while prices and interest rates continued to rise.  Scandals, including bribes paid to Saddam Hussein’s government in relation to wheat sales, arose in recent times.

Another source of public concern was Howard’s iron fist when it came to immigration and refugee claimants.  Human rights groups spoke out against the treatment of people detained by Australian authorities.  Howard was seen as too Anglophile and narrow in his attitude toward a world of growing multiculturalism.  When Chinese leaders paid an official visit to Australia, Rudd chatted with them in Mandarin while Howard stood by seemingly helpless. 

While Howard had opened up trade with Asia, he was still seen as part of the Western world.  Political commentators in the Asian press cited Howard as too much in the Bush camp, unfriendly and arrogant in bilateral relations.  They are calling upon Rudd to be different.

The political landscape is ever-changing, in part now due to the Australian “quake."

Tony Blair left office last June.  John Howard will be officially out of office in days.  George Bush will be gone in a year, but is largely a “lame duck” now.  This would seem to point toward a more growing progressive tinge to the political landscape, although both Germany and France have more conservative leadership.  This is true of Canada, too, but an election is expected next spring.

 The challenges of climate change, poverty, global conflict and more await each new leadership group as it takes power.  For some, how they handle these problems makes them heroes.  For others, it is their undoing.

Zack Gross is program coordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of 36 international development organizations active in our province.

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