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Last Updated: Sunday, 14 October 2007, 01:24 GMT 02:24 UK
Time for change in Australian politics?
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Australian PM John Howard (file photo)
Will John Howard notch up a fifth election victory?

Improbable though it sounds, Karl Rove - former chief aide to the US president - has had what could well turn out to a decisive impact on the 2007 Australian election.

Had it not been for the man dubbed "Bush's brain", the former Labor leader Kim Beazley might be taking aim for his third shot at winning a federal election; John Howard would be confidently expecting a fifth term in office; and the Australian electorate might be on the verge of doing what it has done in more than 80% of elections since the war - returning the incumbent government to power.

The 2007 race was transformed by an unlikely chain of events, which started with the tragic death from cancer of an Australian soap star, Belinda Emmett from Home and Away.

On the day of her funeral, Mr Beazley delivered what he thought was a heartfelt statement to reporters conveying condolences to her grieving husband, the TV star Rove McManus.

Instead, he blundered and asked that the Australian people spare a moment's thought for Karl Rove.

The latest in a conga line of hapless fumbles, the mistake ignited a leadership crisis.

In less than a month, the gaffe-prone Mr Beazley, already a two-time loser, had been replaced by the "Peter Perfect" of Labor politics, Kevin Rudd.

Soon, the former diplomat became the most popular opposition leader in the 30 years that pollsters had bothered to ask the question, and became widely viewed in the Canberra press gallery as a putative prime minister.

Even the recent revelation, that on a drunken bender in New York four years ago he had visited a strip joint, seemed only to burnish his appeal.

The halo may have slipped from St Kevin of Rudd, but only a few weeks later a poll showed the Australian Labor Party 18 points ahead in the polls, and well on its way not just to victory but a landslide.

Economic concerns

One of the old truisms of Australian politics seemed to be playing out - that when governments lose, they lose big.

But there are other unwritten rules of Australian politics that in, normal times, would favour the government.

There is certainly a widespread feeling that John Howard has reached the point of political perishability

As John Howard has repeatedly told his restive party to quell speculation over his leadership, the Australian people rarely throw out governments in the absence of an economic crisis or glaring incompetence or corruption.

True enough, the incumbent government has lost in only four of the 23 elections since 1949. In the past 24 years, there has been only one change of government.

The enduring strength of the economy is undeniably the government's ace card. The resources boom has stoked 16 years of uninterrupted economic growth. At 4.3%, unemployment is at a near record 33-year low.

Still, voters are worried about rising interest rates, especially in the "mortgage belt" where you will find many of the 30 or so marginal constituencies that will ultimately determine this election.

In August, interest rates rose to their highest level in almost 11 years, their fifth spike since the 2004 election.

Given that much of John Howard's success back then was based on his assurance that interest rates would remain low under the Liberal-led coalition, it has undercut his economic appeal. Worse still, interest rates are expected to rise again in November.

As for glaring incompetence or corruption, there is no incontrovertible evidence of the former, and not even a hint of the latter.

'Time for a change'

But the 11-year-old government does looks haggard and tired. As Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Chirac have shown, the shelf-life of successful administrations rarely exceeds a decade.

So this is one of those potentially era-ending elections when "time for a change" could be more than a hoary old cliche and become its defining tag-line.

Australian opposition leader Kevin Rudd (file photo)
Kevin Rudd's popularity has soared in his short time as Labor leader

There is certainly a widespread feeling that John Howard has reached the point of political perishability.

The 68-year-old prime minister has been forced to acknowledge as much, announcing he will retire well into the term of the next government, just as Tony Blair had to do.

And like Mr Blair, he expects his treasurer, Peter Costello, to take over should he confound the polls and win.

As before, John Howard will try to appeal to the paranoiac streak of the Australian electorate.

In 2001, he played on nativistic fears over asylum seekers. Three years later, he tried to exploit jitters over interest rates. Now, once more, he and Peter Costello are trying to frame the election as an economic referendum.

In recent days, they have also opened up a new line of attack; that Kevin Rudd is incapable of making a decision without forming a committee or announcing a policy review.

Not only does the government look tired but the political terrain has shifted since the last election.

Unquestionably, it is vulnerable on the environment and Iraq, both issues which tie it unhelpfully to the unpopular Bush administration.

Its controversial labour reforms have also engendered fears about job security and fairness in the workplace, and may well become the overriding doorstep issue.

Kevin Rudd's resurgent Labor Party needs to win 16 parliamentary seats to form a government.

Ranked in strict order, the prime minister's north Sydney constituency of Bennelong is a tantalising 15th on the target list.

Like the election as a whole, Labor needs a swing of just over 4% to win. And like the election as a whole, its candidate, former ABC news presenter Maxine McKew, is ahead in the latest poll.

If John Howard can successfully defend his own seat, he just might limp home. If not, the political era that even now bears his name will probably just have drawn to a close.

The symbolism has not been lost on anyone, still less its dramatic potential and political neatness. For as goes Bennelong, so will go the nation.

SEE ALSO
Australian PM announces election
14 Oct 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Australia
21 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Australia
21 Aug 07 |  Country profiles

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