Labour sweeps to victory in Australia election

Labour Party Leader Kevin Rudd wins Australia's election Saturday, ending an 11-year conservative era led by Prime Minister John Howard.

Policy changes on global warming, Iraq ahead

Labour Party Leader Kevin Rudd swept to power in the Australian election Saturday, ending an 11-year conservative era and promising major changes to policies on global warming and his country's role in the Iraq war.

Australia's next prime minister, Kevin Rudd, reacts to supporters as he exits the stage following his acceptance speech in Brisbane, Australia, on Saturday. ((Rob Griffith/Associated Press))

"Today Australia has looked to the future," Rudd said in a nationally televised victory speech, to wild cheers from supporters. "Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward … to embrace the future together, to unite and write a new page in our nation's history."

The win marked a humiliating end to the career of outgoing Prime Minister John Howard, who became Australia's second-longest serving leader — and who had appeared almost unassailable as little as a year ago.

In a nationally televised concession speech, Howard announced he had phoned Rudd to congratulate him on "a very emphatic victory."

"I accept full responsibility for the Liberal Party campaign, and I therefore accept full responsibility for the coalition's defeat in this election campaign," Howard said.

Howard also admitted he was likely to lose his seat in Parliament, becoming only the second sitting prime minister in 106 years of federal government to do so.

Official figures from the Australian Electoral Commission showed Labour well ahead with more than 70 per cent of the ballots counted.

An Australian Broadcasting Corp. analysis showed that Labour would get at least 81 places in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament — a clear majority.

ABC radio reported that Howard aides said the prime minister had phoned Rudd to concede defeat. Rudd was expected to formally claim victory later Saturday.

The change in government from Howard's centre-right Liberal-National Party coalition to the centre-left Labour Party also marks a generational shift for Australia.

Climate change a key issue

Rudd, a 50-year-old former diplomat who speaks fluent Chinese, urged voters to support him because Howard was out of touch with modern Australia and ill-equipped to deal with new-age issues such as climate change.

Howard campaigned on his economic management, arguing that his government was mostly responsible for 17 years of unbroken growth, fuelled by China's and India's hunger for Australia's coal and other minerals, and that Rudd could not be trusted to maintain prosperous times.

Rudd said he would withdraw Australia's 550 combat troops from Iraq, leaving twice that number in mostly security roles. Howard had said all the troops will stay as long as needed.

However, a new government is unlikely to mean a major change in Australia's foreign relations, including with the United States — its most important security partner — or with Asia, which is increasingly important for the economy.

But one of the biggest changes will be in Australia's approach to climate change. Rudd has nominated the issue as his top priority, and promises to immediately sign the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions.

When he does so, the United States will stand alone as the only industrialized country not to have signed the pact.

Labour has been out of power for more than a decade, and few in Rudd's team — including him — have any government experience at the federal level. His team includes a former rock star, Midnight Oil singer Peter Garrett, and a swag of former union officials.

But analysts say his foreign policy credentials are impeccable, and that he has shown discipline and political skill since his election as Labour leader 11 months ago.

Rudd's election as Labour leader marked the start of Howard's decline in opinion polls, from which he never recovered.

Howard's four straight election victories since 1996 made him one of Australia's most successful politicians. He refused to stand down before this election — even after being urged to do by some party colleagues. However, Howard earlier this year announced plans to retire within about two years if he won the election.