australian drought

Parts of Australia are still living through the worst drought in a century, helping to make climate change an important issue in the latest elections. Here is a drought-stressed sheep outside Nurioopta.

Here at the Yonder, we know exactly next to nothing about Australian politics, but we do find it interesting that the defeat of the sitting prime minister in that country over the weekend was sealed and delivered by rural voters.

Kevin Rudd

Prime Minister John Howard had built his previous electoral victories in the suburbs and rural communities with a combination of conservative, values-based positions and strong economic performance. Howard campaigned against gay marriage and migrants seeking asylum in Australia. He refused to issue an apology for the treatment of Aboriginal Australians. And he refused to sign the Kyoto treaty aimed at stemming global warming. Howard strongly supported the invasion of Iraq and President Bush. And through much of his term in office — he first won in 1996 — John Howard had 70 percent approval ratings.

Campaign poster for Kevin Rudd.

The parallels between Howard and the Australian conservatives and Bush and the American Republicans are fairly obvious, politically and ideologically. There are geographic similarities, too. Like Bush’s strong showing in the rural U.S., Howard had a near monopoly in rural parts of Australia. In the 2004 parliamentary election, Howard’s Liberal party won 41 of the 45 seats classified as rural by the Australian Electoral Commission.

That rural-based coalition crumbled Saturday, when the Labor Party’s Kevin Rudd won what’s been described as a landslide election. “Kevin Rudd has fractured the electoral coalition that kept John Howard in power for more than a decade by winning over voters from the provincial and rural heartlands,” wrote Mark Davis in the Sydney Morning Herald .

Rudd won 14 of those 45 rural seats and the Labor party was competitive in the Australian exurbs for the first time in a decade. It was a geographic reversal of fortune. Labor had become the party of the capital cities, according to the Morning Herald — just as the Democratic Party here has become the party of urban America. In this election, however, Labor won seats in rural Australia. In fact, the biggest turnarounds for Labor took place in rural districts. Fourteen of the 20 biggest individual seats swings were in rural and provincial electorates.

So, what happened? The Australian press emphasizes that Howard had tied himself too tightly to George Bush. (It is rather remarkable that Bush’s popularity is such that he could sink a candidate on the other side of the globe.) Rudd promised to remove troops from Iraq and to fight global warming. Although the Australian economy is booming — especially in some of the mining regions — the country is suffering from an epic drought.

australian drought

Outside Canberra.
Photo: Pierre Pouliquin

Rudd promised more spending on education and on extending broadband connections throughout the country. Rudd had made building “a world-class broadband network for this nation, city and country” one of his top election pledges. The Australian wrote, “For many voters in regional and rural Australia, broadband could be the election issue that decides who gets their vote.”

Mostly, however, Rudd wasn’t Howard. And Rudd wasn’t tied to Bush or to Iraq. BBC correspondent Nick Bryant wrote that “Iraq has ultimately damaged John Howard, largely because it has become yet another symbol of his almost umbilical relationship with the Bush administration.”

Rudd has already said he will ratify the Kyoto treaty and he plans for his government to issue a formal apology to Aboriginal Australians before the end of the year. Now Australians are waiting to see if the cracks in the conservative/rural coalition will spread.

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