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Sunday, Dec. 2, 2007

Stateside view of Australia's landslide

LOS ANGELES — In a parliamentary system of government, there are no guarantees. You can be in one day and out the next.

So if it's any consolation to crestfallen John Howard, ignominiously defeated for re-election as prime minister of Australia last weekend, it tends to happen this way to the best of them.

Winston Churchill saved England from the Nazis and in the end, got booted out of office. Margaret Thatcher all but saved the British economy and was forced out screaming and kicking.

But was Howard — for 11 years the top Aussie — one of the best? Should he be put into the same breathtaking paragraph as Churchill or Thatcher?

This big question cannot be answered by mere journalists; we bob on the surface tides of our times only hoping not to sink. So let that question remain the domain of the historians, who have the timeless luxury of diving more deeply — and at their leisure.

All we journalists can report authoritatively — and in a timely fashion — is that Howard, like Britain's Tony Blair, is very suddenly gone from center stage. We can also tell you that Howard, just like Blair (and like equally ousted Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar before that), steadfastly supported our American president on Iraq.

Some of my Australian colleagues insist that the Iraq war was not a factor in the landslide victory for the Labour Party. Perhaps — but we should note that the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, consistently and loudly opposed the war. So draw your own conclusion.

We also note that Howard (unlike Blair) had some kind of grumpy chip on his shoulder about the obvious urgency of reversing the degradation of the globe's environment. This, I could never understand. Having met Howard, having once interviewed him one on one, and having liked him — in the sense that you might trust your banker to tell you what your actual balance was and not steal your retirement funds — I did not think him at all dumb. Yet he sometimes gave the impression that any effort to reverse the erosion of our ecology was taking dollars out of his own pocket.

Thankfully, Rudd comes to the world stage as quality goods indeed. As a former diplomat, he seems a complete professional. He knows his economics as well as his politics. Like Howard, he is plain-speaking, but eliciting a sense of deep thinking and broad analysis.

The new Australian prime minister also speaks China's language — literally as well as figuratively. Rudd accepts the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific as the overwhelming, gigantic geopolitical fact of the 21st century.

Australia, whose settlers (but not aboriginals, of course) were largely Anglo-Saxon, has often seemed uncomfortable about fully jumping into Asia. But with Rudd emphasizing relations with Beijing, that problem could wane as China rises. Increasingly, China is almost tantamount to Asia (no disrespect intended to Japan, India and the rest).

Rudd's contribution in gluing Australia more closely to Asia could prove fundamentally healthy for his country's future. But such a foreign-policy drift toward the Asian continent is not necessarily anti-American, for America is inextricably a part of Asia as well.

What Rudd can offer the United States is a less provincial alliance partner. More and more, world politics is less binary and more multipolar, at least economically. He can be of greatest service to Australia's historic ally, America, by telling it the truth as he sees it, by not pandering to our ideological illusions and by being — in effect — a true friend and by neither fawning nor fabricating affection. It would be just wonderful for America if Rudd turns out to be super-smart like Blair — but one who nevertheless can say "no" to big brother when the occasion demands.

Howard, to be sure, never struck me as a terrible fellow at all. But he did seem oddly cranky about indigenous communities, and about immigrants whom he welcomed seemingly reluctantly. Perhaps this is manifestly unfair. But this view of Howard is widely shared in Asia.

The happy irony is that Australia has become an increasingly easy place for a growing numbers of Asians to call home. More and more, its democratic culture, its general tolerance and its urban sophistication — especially, of course, in Melbourne and Sydney — have impressed all who have been able to enjoy it.

In Rudd, the world can expect that Australia will continue to move forward — and at an even faster pace. This was a very good election for the Aussies.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a board member of the Burkle Center on International Relations, is a veteran journalist and author of "Confessions of an American Media Man." Copyright 2007 Tom Plate

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