Until a few years ago, I did a reasonable amount of work in Australia. As many visitors find, it’s a country that is very easy to love: staggering natural wonders, easy-going, wonderfully nice people, a very go-ahead business climate, interesting, cosmopolitan cities, great food. But for the last decade there has been one supremely perplexing fact. In John Howard, Australia seemed to have re-elected multiple times the world’s nastiest democratic politician.
President Bush is worse from a global perspective than Howard because he has vastly greater power. The only good thing that could be said about Howard is that he could have a relatively limited impact on the world outside Australia.
This weekend, the lucky nation finally undid its misdeed and chucked out snarling Howard for the likeable, cerebral Kevin Rudd. I met Rudd a few times when he was the shadow foreign secretary for the then-opposition Labour party. His fluent Chinese is mentioned in every profile of Rudd that I’ve seen, but I was also struck by his interest in really digging into difficult policy ideas. He not only had an interest, but he was very quick to absorb complex issues, and he was astoundingly good at thinking and responding in an open, honest way to probing questions. (That, of course, was when he was a second tier politician of an opposition party. I hope he continues to display these qualities as the political leader on a nation.)
I wondered when Gordon Brown became prime minister whether he’d be a good test case for whether true intellectuals can actually succeed in political leadership. In Rudd, we have another clear test. I think it’s certainly a good thing for Australia, and it may even be a good thing for the world.
Special bonus: The race is very close but it looks like Howard will lose his own seat in Sydney’s Bennelong.