With 10 days to go until Australia's federal election on Nov. 24, the campaigns of incumbent Prime Minister John Howard and challenger Kevin Rudd officially kicked off Wednesday. But there's an odd twist to this showdown: Howard, the leader of a conservative coalition who has served as P.M. since 1996 and is seeking his fifth term in national office, is running behind not just in national polls, but in a fight to keep a seat in Australia's House of Representatives that he has held for 33 years.
How could that happen? One possible reason: The longtime crusader against "multiculturalism" and lover of tough talk on immigration now represents a district that is 41 percent Asian, compared to 2 percent in 1974, when he was first elected.
It's quite a pickle for a politician who in some ways is the Australian analog to Ronald Reagan, who successfully played on racial fears while campaigning first for governor of California and then for president. In "Race: John Howard and the Remaking of Australia," historian Andrew Markus wrote that "it was Howard who was to bring racial issues to the forefront of federal politics ... In contrast with the other Liberal Party leaders during the party's thirteen years in opposition ... Howard was willing to campaign on issues of race and break the bipartisanship which had characterized the Whitlam-Fraser years."
Howard is particularly famous for a statement made on Asian immigration into Australia in 1988.
I do believe that if it is -- in the eyes of some in the community -- that it's too great, it would be in our immediate-term interest and supporting of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little, so the capacity of the community to absorb it was greater.
And in 2001:
I don't think it is wrong, racist, immoral or anything, for a country to say "we will decide what the cultural identity and the cultural destiny of this country will be and nobody else."
The "we" of which he spoke did not just refer to white Australia in opposition to Asian immigration, but also as counterposed with Australia's indigenous Aborigines. Howard's "One Australia" immigration and ethnic affairs policy explicitly rejected Aboriginal land rights, and until very recently he has steadfastly denied even a government statement of "reconciliation."
But the unfathomable irony is that after finally being elected prime minister in 1996, he failed to live up to his rhetoric. Annual immigration to Australia has doubled since he first took office, with some 1 million foreigners taking up residence. And now Asian voters hold the key to his future.
So what does Howard think about multiculturalism today? First, some notable backpedaling: In 2002, reports the Australian, "he admitted for the first time that he had been wrong. 'My instinct is that Asian-Australians are very much part of the community now. I think it (their integration) has been quicker. I just don't hear people talking about it now, even as much as they did five years ago, and I have an electorate which is very Asian.'"
Now, <a href="Howard praises Asian entrepreneurial and family values. Chinese lanterns hang in his constituency headquarters, and he's opened a campaign office in the mostly Asian suburb of Eastwood. In May, he hosted 600 local voters to a special event where his speech was translated into Cantonese.
Hard to say how that went over with the Mandarin-speakers in his district, but for them there's an easy solution: They can just ask his challenger to translate, as Kevin Rudd is notoriously fluent in China's official dialect.