SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s John Howard ended his 11-year reign as Australian prime minister on Saturday after a crushing defeat for his conservative party in a general election, leaving a booming economy but deep divisions over social issues.
Howard, who describes himself as an economic liberal but a social conservative, won four straight elections from March 1996, largely due to his record of economic management and iron grip on national security and illegal immigration.
He strengthened Australia’s ties with the United States, staunchly backing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and intervened to stop the collapse of troubled Pacific island nations.
“I leave the office of prime minister with our nation more prouder and more prosperous,” Howard said in conceding defeat.
“I accept full responsibility for the Liberal party campaign and I therefore accept full responsibility for the coalition defeat in this election campaign,” he said.
The swing to opposition Labor left Howard, 68, struggling to retain his own seat, although he was expected to resign from parliament even if he managed a narrow win.
The seeds of the election defeat were sewn with his fourth victory in 2004, when Howard won a majority in the upper house Senate, making him the most powerful prime minister in 25 years and allowing him to pass his agenda without amendments.
Emboldened by his new mandate, Howard set about his long-held goal of reforming Australian employment laws, making it easier for employers to sack workers and promoting individual work contracts instead of union-based award conditions.
The changes were unpopular with workers, and prompted widespread protests across the country and a concerted campaign from unions, who said the reforms undermined job security and would drive down wages.
The changes have been a lightning rod for disgruntled voters Australia’s biggest cities, with job security falling while house prices and home mortgage interest rates rise.
“Howard has had some successes in managing a prosperous economy,” political analyst Nick Economou told Reuters. “But then they made a major error by instilling insecurity in people at a time of prosperity.”
When he first won power in 1996, Howard said he wanted Australia to be “relaxed and comfortable” about its place in the world, rather than a nation struggling with its European cultural roots and its geographical location in the Asia-Pacific.
He has overseen growing trade with China and Japan, stronger ties with Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, and has championed free trade, negotiating a string of bilateral free trade agreements.
But his close political and personal affiliation with U.S. President George W. Bush led the media to describe Howard as Bush’s “deputy sheriff” in the region.
A survey of foreign policy analysts, by the respected Lowy Institute, said Howard’s decision to join the 2003 war on Iraq was his government’s biggest foreign policy mistake, followed by his decision not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
The same survey nominated Howard’s support for East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, and the decision to send 5,000 troops to restore order after East Timor’s 1999 independence vote, as the highlights of his premiership.
Under Howard, the government eliminated inherited debt and has delivered a series of budget surpluses, with unemployment at 33-year lows and an economy growing strongly, mainly due to Chinese demand for Australian resources.
But Economou said the economic gains came at the expense of social issues and a series of scandals, which voters have largely overlooked over the past 11 years.
Howard’s tough stand against asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, who are detained in remote immigration detention camps or sent to centers in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, has attracted widespread criticism from human rights groups.
Howard’s government also failed to act when warned that the country’s monopoly wheat exporter had paid more than $220 million worth of bribes to the former government of Saddam Hussein in return for wheat deals ahead of the Iraq war.
And immigration authorities have been embroiled in a series of blunders after deporting or detaining Australian citizens as suspected illegal immigrants.
Howard also angered Aborigines with his steadfast refusal to apologize for past injustices, despite a major report calling for an apology to help reconcile differences between Aborigines and other Australians.
Editing by Jonathan Standing