She’ll be right, mate.

Inside Politics – The Policy Exchange newsletter (London), 30 November 2007

What do you do with a government that has created two million new jobs? That has halved inflation? Under which real wages went up 20 per cent? Which cut the national tax burden? Under which exports doubled? Kick it out. So said the Australian electorate last weekend.

Surely, John Howard must have done something terribly wrong? Quite the contrary: Australia enjoys full employment, growth is running at 4% and the federal budget is running a substantial surplus.

True, the Howard government could hardly claim all of this enviable economic success for itself. Geographically, Australia, rich in uranium and coal, is perfectly located to meet the demand for minerals from China especially.

Prudently, Howard and his Treasurer Peter Costello didn’t squander this bonanza on the public sector which is still smaller than Britain’s but it could be said that infrastructure failed to keep pace with the country’s strong economic performance.

So why did the Australian electorate run away from John Howard and into the arms of Kevin Rudd, a sharp intellectual but an unknown quantity? The answer, paradoxically, is John Howard. After eleven years in office the public had simply become tired of his face. Next to the boyish Rudd, he looked all of his 68 years.

Further, Howard never shied away from doing what he – if not always the public – thought right. He refused to say “Sorry” to the Aboriginal communities for historic mistreatment. He supported the Iraq invasion because America had been Australia’s most reliable friend and ally. He also refused to ratify Kyoto which he feared would threatened vital Australian economic interests, not least as a coal exporter.

So John Howard was an anachronism: a successful manager of the state not in thrall to the polls. He stood for the opposite of touchy-feely politics.

Rudd claims Australia has looked into the future. But what future? Cooling the US alliance? Signing the failed Kyoto protocol? Indulging the unions?

What looks like ingratitude on the Australian electorate’s part might, though, be a kind of deferred justice: Howard himself benefited hugely from the economic reforms undertaken by his Labor predecessors Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Luckily, Australia is in such a position of strength now that it matters little which party rules for the next three years. “She’ll be right, mate” as they say in Sydney.

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