Political events in Australia have been moving so fast, no one has really caught up. A week ago, Labor looked very likely to win the election (held last Saturday) and there seemed a good chance that Liberal (= pro-business right) Prime Minister John Howard would lose his own seat. Those things duly happened, and that seemed to be about as much as we could expect or hope for. Instead, there has been a meltdown of spectacular proportions on the losing side.
First, Howard’s deputy and longstanding rival Peter Costello announced, contrary to most expectations, that he would not serve as leader of the opposition and was looking to get out of politics and into business where he could make some real money. Then Mark Vaile the leader of the Liberals’ coalition partner the National (= rural sector) Party decided he should spend more time with his family.
And there was more to come. Foreign Minister and Mark Steyn fan, Alexander Downer decided he would also head for the backbench (it seems likely that he and Vaile will face a lot of trouble for a deal in which a government-established monopoly paid Saddam Hussein kickbacks, out of Iraqi Oil-for-Food money, to buy Australian wheat, right up to the day Australian forces took part in the 2003 invasion).
The last prominent conservative left standing at this point, Health Minister, Tony Abbott, announced he would run for the party leadership but withdrew when it became apparent he didn’t have the numbers. That left the Liberals with a choice between two ambitious, but largely ideology-free, political adventurers, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull.
Turnbull, much the more able of the two, offered a complete repudiation of the culture-war policies of the Howard era, proposing ratification of the Kyoto protocol, an apology to indigenous Australians, support for repeal of the anti-union Workchoices package. He has also been a leading advocate of an Australian republic. Nelson, who ended up winning by three votes, has announced support for Kyoto, and partial support for Workchoices repeal, while opposing an apology. Even this much would have seemed unthinkable a week ago
After a thoroughly uninspiring election campaign, characterised by lots of me-too promises and fence-sitting, we have ended up with a political scene that is utterly transformed, with the previously dominant hardline right not merely out of government but a marginalised minority within the opposition. It remains to be seen whether Labor can make anything of this. No one is expecting much in the short term, but suddenly there seems to be room to move, and the prospect of several terms in office in which to do it.