BRISBANE (Reuters) - Australia’s incoming Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, has pledged closer ties with key friends and allies after sweeping away 11 years of conservative rule under John Howard.
Rudd, 50, presented himself as a new generation leader by promising to pull around 500 frontline Australian troops out of Iraq and sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, further isolating Washington on both issues.
“To our friends and allies around the world, I look forward as the next Prime Minister of Australia to working with them in dealing with the great challenges which our world now faces,” he told cheering supporters at a victory party late on Saturday.
“We extend our greetings tonight to our great friend and ally the United States, to our great friends and partners across Asia and the Pacific, and to our great friends and partners in Europe and beyond.”
The surge to Labor left Howard battling to win even his own parliamentary seat, which he has held since 1974, putting him in danger of becoming the first prime minister since 1929 to lose his constituency.
“King Kevin the new conqueror,” said the Sun-Herald newspaper in Howard’s home town of Sydney on Sunday. “It’s Labor in a Ruddslide”, said the Australian national newspaper.
At least four and possibly six government ministers, including Howard, looked likely to be ejected after a swing of more than six percent across the nation, bringing only the sixth change of government since World War Two.
Election analyst Antony Green predicted Labor would win up to 86 seats in the 150-seat parliament, giving it a majority for the first time since it lost power to Howard in 1996.
Rudd is expected to forge closer ties with China and other Asian nations and has said he wants a more independent voice in foreign policy, with past Labor governments more supportive of an energetic United Nations and global organizations.
Rudd promised to sign the Kyoto climate pact immediately and lead his country to next month’s UN climate summit in Bali, expected to kick-start talks on a post-Kyoto deal to slash greenhouse gas emissions globally.
But Labor could be frustrated by a hostile Senate (upper
house), where the conservatives will have sway until July next year, possibly frustrating Rudd’s Kyoto plan and promise to dump unpopular government labor laws which propelled his victory.
Centre-left Labor will have to negotiate with diverse minor Senate parties including the left-leaning Australian Greens and the conservative, Christian values Family First party.
In a message of unity, Rudd promised to govern for all Australians, including migrants and the poor.
“Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward,” Rudd, flanked by his wife Therese and family, told around 1,000 wildly cheering home supporters at a football stadium in the tropical northern city of Brisbane.
The election was fought mainly on domestic issues, with Labor cashing in on anger at labor laws and rising interest rates which put home owners under financial pressure at a time when Australia’s economy is booming.
“Like Howard, he will quickly attempt to secure his administration with the fortress of institutional and cultural change. In short, Australia will shift to the left,” said the Bulletin news magazine.
“Rudd will have to open negotiations soon with the United States about the withdrawal of Australia’s combat troops from Iraq. This is a delicate operation because it will be Labor’s first testing of the alliance,” veteran political commentator Michelle Grattan wrote in the Sun-Herald.
President George W. Bush congratulated Rudd on his election victory, and praised Howard’s leadership.
“The United States and Australia have long been strong partners and allies and the president looks forward to working with this new government to continue our historic relationship,” the White House said in a statement.
Howard, who had won four consecutive elections and held power for 11 years, conceded his government had lost power in front of a crowd of supporters in Sydney late on Saturday, saying he took full personal responsibility for the defeat.
“This is a great democracy and I want to wish Mr Rudd well,” Howard said. “We bequeath to him a nation that is stronger and prouder and more prosperous than it was 11-1/2 years ago.”
The result puts Labor in power nationally and in all of Australia’s six states and two territories, with the lord mayor of the northern city of Brisbane now the senior ranking elected official in Howard’s Liberal Party.
Howard, who on Sunday went for his regular morning walk in the wake of defeat, had won four consecutive elections and was Australia’s second-longest serving prime minister behind Liberal Party founder Sir Robert Menzies.
Editing by Richard Williams