ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Mandate for Labour in Australia

Labour’s victory will be significant only if the Kevin Rudd government moves beyond symbolic measures.

The verdict that delivered a stunning election defeat to John Howard’s Liberal National coalition in Australia and swept Labour to power invites varying interpretations. But the “change” that the Australian elections signified was evident not just in the voters’ preference for a new government after 11 years of conservative rule but the change John Howard lost sight of, as he ruled over an Australia that had enjoyed strong economic growth during the last 16 years and where unemployment rates were at their lowest in 33 years.

On certain popular measures, Kevin Rudd, to be sworn in as prime minister on December 3, promised a welcome change. The war in Iraq has been unpopular but arguably did not exercise a decisive influence in these elections. Howard’s victory in 2004 against the Labour opposition was won despite the stringent criticism from the Philip Flood report of July 2004 that the government had used “thin intelligence” as a basis for going to war. Rudd has since announced a phased withdrawal of the thousand or so Australian troops stationed in Iraq. More crucially, Rudd has been silent on Australia’s terror laws that have sought to confer broader investigative powers on intelligence and police agencies and include more stringent provisions for preventive detention. The Howard government had been criticised for citing the “character test” in Australia’s controversial immigration laws as a pretext for detaining the Indian doctor, Mohammad Haneef last July. These very same immigration measures were used to limit the number of migrants into Australia, but the categories adopted were clearly discriminatory as symbolised by the images of poor refugees in overcrowded boats or packed into detention centres. Besides mandatory citizenship tests, Australia had announced a freeze on the settlement of immigrants from Africa this year, on grounds that they had trouble integrating. Rudd’s position has been, however, ambiguous on immigration. The party has pledged almost Australian $ 50 million to reforming the system of teaching English to new arrivals and helping them to find jobs.

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