If Kevin Rudd’s election victory speech is to be believed, he has already fortified himself with a “strong cup of tea and an iced vovo biscuit”. He quickly and smoothly assumed the reigns of power today in his first media conference as Australia’s Prime Minister elect. While the rest of the country grapples with the likely sea change that the Labor victory will bring, Rudd laid out his immediate 100 day plan.
Rudd said he “wanted to hit the ground running” and he wants to impose change with Whitlamesque speed. In a wide ranging speech, he reiterated his support for the US alliance, announced he will attend the Bali leaders’ climate change meeting next week, promised to ratify Kyoto by Christmas, hold a premiers' meeting to discuss health issues by March, and called for tenders for the rollout of high-speed broadband and computers into schools. Beyond that he plans to commit to an emissions trading regime by mid next year and will enforce a uniform mandatory renewable energy target by end 2008.
There was little gloating about his extraordinary overnight success or the reasons for it, but there is little doubt that his home state of Queensland was instrumental in the convincing margin (Labor is likely to have an overall 24 or 26 seat majority). Earlier this year Labor strategists believed that that the local man could take 8 Queensland seats from the Coalition. After the state government-based debacle of compulsory council amalgamation, Labor predictions dropped to 4 or 5. In the end, they needn’t have worried. When Premier Peter Beattie quit, the amalgamation issue faded away. Instead Queensland gleefully embraced the prospect of having their own PM (their first since Andrew Fisher in 1907) and Labor picked up an incredible 10 seats to demolish Howard in the Sunshine State.
Seven more seats fell in NSW. Between them, the two rugby league states delivered victory to Rudd. The outgoing Prime Minister was himself a victim of the carnage though still hasn’t formally conceded defeat in his seat of Bennelong. The margin was narrower in the southern states and WA swung against the trend. But the wealth of the west was not enough to save Howard's career. Nor Peter Costello’s. The outgoing Treasurer bowed to realpolitik today and refused the “poisoned chalice” nomination of the Liberal Party leadership. This was despite the endorsements of John Howard and foreign minister Alexander Downer. Costello cited the desire to spend more time with his family as the reason why he would not stand. The more likely reason is that he knows the election was in many ways a referendum on the Howard/Costello team and his own leadership would have been fatally handicapped by that association.
While Labor had been licking their lips at having to deal with Costello as opposition leader, the situation has now changed dramatically. Maverick Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce described it as a a likely “Melbourne Cup” field of candidates ready to step up to the job. Malcolm Turnbull (one of the few Liberals outside of WA to record a favourable swing) is slight favourite and was first to declare his candidacy. However he is likely to face challenges from the likes of Brendan Nelson, Julie Bishop, Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and possibly even Alexander Downer if he believes the memories of his failed 1994 run have faded.
Surprisingly, given their disarray in the lower house, the Liberals faired much better in the Senate matching Labor’s 18 seats this time round. But they will lose their overall majority on 30 June 2008. The balance of power will switch to a diverse crew of 5 Greens, 1 Family First (Steve Fielding) and newcomer independent Nick Xenophon from South Australia. While the views of the Greens and FF are well documented, the position of the aptly named Mr X is far less certain. Xenophon is a single issues campaigner who made his name in state politics with a ‘no pokies’ platform. Now he says his focus will be water issues.
A couple of sad notes to finish on. Firstly there was the loss of Andrew Bartlett’s seat in the Queensland Senate. While the Australian Democrats have been a rabble for several years, Senator Bartlett bucked the trend and was a credit to the parliament with his honesty, integrity and sense of social justice. His blog has been a wonderful advertisement for open access politics and a fascinating insider’s guide to parliament. A couple of weeks ago Bartlett wrote “Just think how bad it would be for the political credibility of blogging if the only politician who’d been doing it seriously for the last three years lost his seat!” Bartlett is right. This is bad news. Unless someone new takes up the cudgels, the blogosphere will lose its only window on Canberra on 1 July 2008.
Lastly but not least is the sad news today of the death of journalist Matt Price of a brain tumour. Just 46, he was a parliamentary reporter in Canberra for The Australian and painted wonderful vignettes of political life. I also enjoyed his regular ruminations about his favourite AFL club, the usually woeful Fremantle Dockers. His work beautifully evoked the rueful passions of those who bear the cross of supporting rubbish teams in any sporting code. He’ll be sadly missed.