Howard’s painful finale

By November 26, 2007Article, Atlantic Eye

SEATTLE, Nov. 26 (UPI) — The writing had been on the wall for more than a year. But even 48 hours ago I did not quite believe that Prime Minister Howard would lose the Australian federal elections. I certainly didn’t believe he would lose his own parliamentary seat; he hasn’t — yet — but it is too close to call.

After nearly 12 years as prime minister, Howard will clear his office for Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd and the Australian Labor Party.

Howard became Prime Minister in 1996 and had become Australia’s second-longest-serving leader. Pundits will now say he should have stepped down at the last elections. But Howard is a fighter. Unwavering in his loyalty to the United States, he tackled many difficult economic issues. He created many enemies in the labor movement but steered Australia’s economy to new heights.

Howard believed in himself. He saw himself best able to continue leading Australia. He had turned around many an election no one thought he could win. Even with polls against him, many thought he would be the phoenix.

Howard has held his parliamentary seat for 33 years. Districts change, so do populations, and what had been a reliably conservative seat over the years had become a marginal one. But Howard showing the grit he is known for refused to be placed in a safe seat. Few prime ministers hold marginal seats, and even fewer would have the courage to stay and defend it. If he loses, he will become only the second serving prime minister to lose his own seat in Australian history — the last was 1929.

A year ago I sat with Arthur Sinodinos, who had been Howard’s chief of staff since 1997. Sinodinos had been one of Howard’s safest hands and closest confidantes. It was not the first of many meetings we have had, but it was our first meeting since he had stepped down. We talked over coffee about the prime minister’s election chances in the next year. He was confident Howard would win what he acknowledged was a tough fight.

I wondered at the time if his departure spelled bad news for the prime minister.

Sinodinos had turned down becoming ambassador to the United States to take a senior job in the banking a sector. Near 50 and a family man, Sinodinos was not particularly interested in having his family uprooted. Sinodinos was widely considered one of the most influential people in Australia — salt of the earth, smart, tough when he left his position.

He wouldn’t say it then, but I felt he saw the writing on the wall.

Howard is not the only one who must clear his ministerial desk.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer defended his own parliamentary seat with a severely reduced majority. Downer has been foreign minister since 1996. In late 2005 the Prague Society and Global Panel hosted him on his first official visit to the Czech Republic. We had met several times in between. Downer had recently made serious inroads negotiating with the North Koreans. He will leave office one of the longest-serving foreign ministers worldwide.

My friend Phillip Ruddock loses his post as attorney general. We met in 2002 when he was minister for immigration. He had visited Prague before the big floods. The Prague Society liked him then, and we like him now. I have written it before — Ruddock is one of the most misunderstood public officials in Australia. He is a good and fine man, but often played the government’s advocatus diabolus. He easily maintained his own Berowra seat. Ruddock is the longest-sitting member of Parliament and will become one of the longest serving MPs in Australian history. He served 11 years as minister. I look forward to our future interactions.

Minister of the Environment Malcolm Turnbull, an Oxford-educated self-made millionaire, while losing his post as minister, held his seat in Wentworth by a higher margin than predicted. He is considered a future leader of the Liberal Party. When we met in his Sydney home in 2005, I felt already then that he had a strong future ahead of him.

On the other side of the political line stands the president of the Australian Labor Party. Sen. John Faulkner has served in three ministerial portfolios including Veterans Affairs and the Environment. He has been leader of the opposition in the Senate. Faulkner hardly minces his words, as those who have become the victim of his wrath know all too well. He fought a hard and good fight, showed leadership and discipline. Another person to watch is the gritty Sydney-based MP Laurie Ferguson, who has held numerous shadow ministerial positions. I respect these men highly and expect good things from both.

Kevin Rudd, whom I have met just once, a former diplomat and fluent Mandarin speaker, will take on the mantle of prime minister.

Mr. Prime Minister-elect, you inherit a grand legacy and a strong economy.

I have great respect for Australia and her people. Please don’t let them down.

(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he is a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party and the vice chairman of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)