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Australia set for gradual change under Rudd

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, will cause no harm to the nation’s strong ties with the United States despite his decision to pull troops out of Iraq and to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, analysts said on Sunday.

Newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd waves to the crowd after Labour won the Federal election, Brisbane, November 24, 2007. Rudd will cause no harm to the nation's strong ties with the United States despite his decision to pull troops out of Iraq and to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, analysts said on Sunday. REUTERS/Steve Holland

Rudd, a bookish 50-year-old former diplomat, ended 11 years of conservative rule in Australia on Saturday after winning an election fought on his push for a new generation of leadership.

While the campaign focused mainly on domestic issues, Rudd also promised the gradual withdrawal of about 500 frontline troops from Iraq and vowed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, further isolating U.S. President George W. Bush on both issues.

“We will have a chance to be seen again as a country that is a force for good, rather than just a lickspittle of the United States,” analyst Nick Economou from Monash University told Reuters on Sunday.

“The world will see us as coming back to the international community.”

John Howard, the outgoing conservative prime minister, was a close personal and political ally of Bush, but was criticised by many in Australia as being too close to Washington, earning the nickname of Bush’s “deputy sheriff”.

Howard strongly supported the military campaign in Iraq, where Australia has about 1,500 troops, and he joined Bush in refusing to ratify Kyoto on climate change, making Australia and the United States the only developed nations to stand aloof.

Rudd said on Sunday he had spoken to Bush, and had stressed his determination to keep the Australia-U.S. military alliance at the centre of his foreign and strategic policy.

Rudd, who speaks Mandarin and held talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Mandarin in September, also wants closer engagement with Asia and a more conciliatory approach to Canberra’s ties with troubled Pacific Islands nations.

He has also signalled an increase in Australia’s aid spending, and stronger support for international organisations.

“That’s a clear shift. That would have quite a lot of significance for Australia’s position at the United Nations and other international bodies,” Geoffrey Hawker, Macquarie University’s head of international relations, told Reuters.

On climate, Rudd has matched European commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent of 2000 levels by 2050, and to encourage renewable energy, although he has yet to set a carbon emissions target for Australia for 2020.

By ratifying Kyoto, Rudd hopes Australia will take a lead role in the new round of negotiations for post-Kyoto carbon reduction targets, with talks to start in Bali early next month. He has already announced he will attend the Bali meeting.


Respected political analyst Paul Kelly, from the Australian newspaper, compared Rudd to British former leader Tony Blair, who modernised his Labour party and shifted it to the centre.

“This is a new era. This is the Kevin Rudd era,” Kelly told Australian television on Sunday.

“He sees himself as a modernist, he sees himself as a consensus leader. He wants to unite the country.

“And finally he’ll govern from the centre. He’ll be like Tony Blair. In this sense he will be particularly formidable.”

During the campaign, Rudd promised continuing conservative economic management, but cashed in on voter anger at unpopular workplace laws which made workers feel less secure in their jobs.

Rudd has promised to scrap the workplace laws, but will be hampered in the initial period of government by the upper house Senate, which remains in conservative control until next July.

That will force Rudd to introduce his reforms slowly and will ensure no major changes as he shifts Australia back towards a centrist government from the previous administration that had moved to the right, Economou said.

“It’s evolutionary rather than revolutionary. That’s the bureaucratic way,” Economou said. “He’s not the sort of guy who will wade in and start making big dramatic changes.

“I think we’ve moved to the centre, but there may be a small incremental move to the left.”