Finally, Fire in Elections Down Under

SYDNEY, Australia -- Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister, was the first world leader to tether his political fate to the vision of a carbon-neutral era. In 2007, freshly in office, he signed the Kyoto protocol, which his conservative predecessor had refused to ratify, and, in 2009, he declared that "the most wicked problem facing us as a nation and the world at the moment is climate change. It is one of the greatest scientific, economic and moral challenges of our time.''

He was also, it turned out, fated to be the first leader to fall on the sword of that reluctant revolution. And in the election now playing out here in his stead, pitting his Brutus, the Labor Party's rubbery Julia Gillard, against the Coalition's Tony Abbot, whose fairway cropped hair and big ears can only remind one of a poor man's Daniel Craig, concern about climate change, like elsewhere in the world, has notably fallen out of favor. The ever-unimportant but divisive debate on immigration, here, as in the United States, has instead taken the front seat.[1]

The campaign has proved excruciatingly dull, particularly on the heels of historic elections in both the UK and the US. "[E]ven the cliches are suffering fatigue," columnist Shawn Carney wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last week.

But this malaise politics-- so dry that the only debate was moved up half an hour to avoid losing viewers to the MasterChef finale-- is exactly what Australia has earned for herself.

"This is boomtown right now," one former labor party economist mentioned over dinner last week, "even if nobody realizes it." Unemployment's at 5.5 percent and falling; interest rates on three month Treasury bills are 4.95 percent; ten years are at 5.18. Australia, tucked away in its own little corner of the globe, has managed to largely escape the global financial collapse.

I came here to see Paul Keating, a former prime minister and treasurer, whom many consider the architect of the nation's modern economy. But not all.

Indeed, the political drama playing out today on the senior tour, pitting Keating against Bob Hawke, the prime minister under whom he served as treasurer from 1983 - 1991, has proved far more entertaining than the main bout.

Hawke, a puff-haired, womanizing Aussie's Aussie, held a record in the Guinness Book for the fastest consumption of a yard glass of beer, roughly two and a half pints in eleven seconds.  He was also a four-time prime minister.

Keating, on the other hand, has a taste for antiques and double-breasted Ermenegildo Zegna suits, and would listen to Wagner's Valkyrie in preparation for questions in the parliament, imagining himself as Zeus hurling lightning bolts.

Hawke was the subject of a made-for-TV movie that aired on national television Sunday, July 15th. The film coincides with the release of a second book by his biographer, former lover, and current wife, Blanche D'Alpuget. I agree, a little too close to the source material. The pair also served as unofficial advisors to the film, and Hawke allegedly went through the script with the director line by line.

Blanche, to the chagrin of most Australians, took up with Hawke in the process of writing her first book about the prime minister, pushing aside his much-loved wife, Hazel.

The film, not surprisingly, as well as an interview with Hawke and Blanche that aired directly following, provided a narrow portrait, showing Keating a rather minor part. He penned a vicious letter to the Australian in reply:

"The book will fail to make clear that your emotional and intellectual malaise lasted for years. All through the Tax Summit year of 1985; through to your lacklustre performance through the 1987 election, to the point when in 1988, four years later, (John) Dawkins had to front you, asking you to leave. It was only after that that you approached me, at your initiative, to enter into an agreement with me to succeed you following the 1990 election. An agreement you subsequently broke."

Yes, this is certainly a good bit more entertaining. Hawke, it's widely known, suffered a severe bout of depression starting in 1984, after his pregnant daughter was diagnosed as a heroin addict.

"The fact is, Bob, I was exceedingly kind to you for a very long time. I knew the state you were in in 1984 and notwithstanding a lot of unhelpful advice from Garnaut and other obsequious members of your staff, I carried you through the whole 1984-1987 parliament, insisting you look like the prime minister, even if your staff, the Manchu Court I called them, were otherwise prepared to leave you in your emotional hole."

There is little question that the pair achieved a great deal together. As one former aide said, "it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began." Keating was clearly the mind, "the government's engine room, the stoker of its ideas and the challenger to its boundaries of the possible," as Michael Gordon wrote in the Herald last week. But Hawke's political skills are unquestionable, as was the public's affinity for him.

A dispute of this kind can only be anchored in extraordinary passion; a debate of this ferocity requires zeal to match the stakes. Today, for the first time, Australia saw a hint of that emotion in its current leadership struggle. Old Kevin Rudd, speaking for the first time since he was deposed, brought life to the debate while throwing his support behind Gillard. Freshly out of the hospital after gall-bladder surgery, he told an assembled press conference:  "I can't be silent while knowing that Mr. Abbott has opposed those measures that kept Australia out of the global recession, unique among the developed economies of the world."

Abbot, he continued, was "not up to the job of being prime minister" and would be an embarrassment of the nation, as he would be "the only prime minister in the western world who says and believes that climate change is 'absolute crap' -- his own language."

Abbot and Gillard are, for the moment, in a virtual heat, with the nationally mandatory vote scheduled for August 28th.

The debate has the throe of passion back for the moment, and the hint of an issue of weight; now where are the ideas?

[1]. An interesting aside on immigration: The Sydney Morning Herald noted last Monday that Universities in New South Wales was predicting a drop in international student enrollment on the order of 10 - 20 percent as a result of the debate's tone. Another interesting piece on the A$2 billion economic impact of foreign students on Brisbane's economy.