I remember driving around northern Victoria the day after 1996 election with the most peculiar feeling. People suddenly looked and sounded different. I felt on edge, wanting to stay silent and not draw attention to myself. In fact I felt like a spy in a WW2 film, or one of the last humans in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, anxious not to give anything away lest I be spotted as someone who didn’t belong.

Of course my fellow Australians weren’t Nazis or aliens — well, very few of them were. Rather, they had become something more sinister — John Howard voters. As a Paul Keating partisan, someone from the socialist republic of Canberra, I suddenly felt like an enemy in my own country. In my head I was practising my lines so, if I had to interact with anyone, I wouldn’t give myself away, like an escaped POW. Except, instead of rehearsing “Ich werde etwas frisches Sauerkraut kaufen,” I was saying, in a broad accent, “that’ll fix the Abos. Now farmers and small business can get a fair go.”

I’m joking, of course. There was no accent.

And time would cure me of such delusions about my fellow-citizens, if only by replacing them with others.

I recalled that because it’s the Ruddiversary, and it occurred to me that many John Howard supporters might have spent the last 12 months regarding their fellow Australians with a similarly jaundiced eye. The feeling is reinforced by the Gotterdammerung sense that accompanies the end of a long-serving government. What seems like a well-stocked larder of talent in office suddenly looks bare. In 1996, it was because Paul Keating had left — well, been booted off – the stage. Who was there to replace him on the Labor side? Kim Beazley? Gareth Evans? The prospect was unnerving. Many a John Howard fan must now have the same uncomfortable feeling with that dreadfully progressive Malcolm Turnbull and a Coalition frontbench that doesn’t even compare well with its own backbenchers, who still include four former senior ministers.

But the feeling also reflects an acceptance of an idea beloved of politicians, that they have far more control over what’s going on than they actually do. “Change the government and you change the country,” both John Howard and Paul Keating warned in their final days. Well, they would say that. No decent politician would ever admit that it doesn’t matter which way you vote. But all politicians sell themselves on the idea that they can do much more than is actually possible, including changing the country. Australians are particularly eager buyers of this fiction, for reasons historians could speculate about for years.

And in the closed Australia before the 1980s, this notion had some grounding in reality, because governments played a central role in the Australian economy. Since we opened ourselves to the world, however, our politicians have had an ever-diminishing capacity to control what goes on. This has particularly been the case because both major parties have adopted an economically liberal policy framework even in those areas where government had a significant role.

But this was one of the causes of the disaffection that developed toward the Howard Government in 2006 and never really went away no matter what the Coalition did, once Labor looked like it had got its house in order. Having sold themselves as being in economic control, the masters of both fiscal and monetary policy and the custodians of a boom economy, the Coalition had no answers to rising grocery and fuel prices or, eventually, anything else faintly inconvenient for voters grown used to being given whatever they wanted. Labor exploited that effectively, although in a way that was too clever by half. Labor carefully expressed itself so that it made no promises, while hinting that it would do something about rising prices. When that something turned out to be the likes of Fuelwatch and Grocerychoice, it wasn’t a good look. 

Voters are likely to hold similar expectations about the altogether more real threat of the global economic downturn. 6 or 7% unemployment won’t disturb too many people beyond the unemployed themselves. But any higher, people will start worrying about their own jobs, or their kids’ jobs, and they’ll start wanting reassurance. There is little that a government of a small, open economy can do to mitigate the effects of a global recession. Its capacity to stimulate the economy, even if it borrows significant funding, is limited. Labor’s biggest worry now is that high unemployment will be sheeted home to it in 2010, regardless.

That’s where Wayne Swan has been the weakest link in the senior ranks of the Government. Swan has demonstrated his capacity for the job, first in the budget, where he got the balance right between cutting spending and slowing the economy, and second in handling the consequences of events in September and October. It’s his presentation and confidence, not the substance, that are the problem. The Treasurer’s job isn’t intellectually demanding. You have some of the finest minds in the country working for you. It’s the need to assure markets and voters that you’re across your brief that makes it so hard. Lindsay Tanner has the confidence for that, as does Julia Gillard. Swan is still, you might say, a work in progress. Perhaps the next budget — the difficult second budget — will be the making of him.

With Gillard and Tanner what you see is what you get. Especially with the Deputy Prime Minister, who has thrived since the election in a way no one picked. What you see is a feisty redhead with a sharp tongue, a top lawyer’s capacity for argument — and a reasonable sense of perspective. And that’s what you get. In Parliament, she could convincingly argue that black is white and make the Opposition kick itself for being so stupid as to ask her the question — and sit down with a smile that showed she knew what nonsense she’d just uttered. She is Prime Ministerial timber, and in fact if Rudd keeps travelling as much as he has this year, she’ll have racked up several months’ worth of on-the-job training by the time he decides to move on to greener pastures.

On the other hand, what you see with Rudd is not what you get. What you see depends on the audience and the job at hand. Rudd is a brilliant man adept at playing the role he judges best for the audience and the circumstances. He’s probably done it all his life. The self-deprecation, though, might be a more recently-acquired trait. But that is also related, one suspects, to his fondness for hanging out with celebrities. Almost certainly, within Kevin Rudd, there’s still the little kid from Nambour who almost can’t believe he’s running the country.

It can make him look stupid — e.g. the G20 call and its aftermath — but there are much worse flaws to have, especially in a Prime Minister.

But that’s why there’s a certain unknowability about Prime Minister Rudd. We knew Howard, and Keating and Hawke, understood them whether we liked or disliked them. We’ll never fully know Rudd, because he always has a mask on, one he’ll change depending on whether he’s chatting with Mel’n’Kochie, or addressing a business lunch, or hanging around with other leaders at a summit.

The biggest problem for Rudd this year has been that the financial crisis destroyed his reform agenda. He’ll continue to push what he can, but for the most part it has vanished along with the budget surpluses. Forget that stuff about the financial crisis giving the Government a narrative and direction. Rudd has ambitions. They might have taken two terms, or longer. But he had big plans in education, infrastructure, Commonwealth-State relations, health, homelessness and closing the indigenous health gap. It was a big-picture agenda and boy was he up for it. Now he’s going to have to pick and choose, and all he can do reflect on how the last years of the economic boom, 2004-07, were squandered by Australia.

Thank you John Howard and Mark Latham.

But that won’t prevent Australia continuing to change. We changed significantly in the last 3-4 years. Change was afoot before 2004 but it accelerated after that, helped by the Coalition’s insane obsession with IR reform. And if you change the country, you change the government, not the other way around. Sometimes governments change themselves in response. Other times they lose office. The Howard Government needed to do the former to stave off the latter, and failed. In addition to overselling its capacity to control the economy, it lost touch with an evolving electorate. We all knew, even if few of us dared to say it, that John Howard in his last days looked as absurd and irrelevant as Paul Keating did in 1996.

This is a more liberal-minded country now than at any time since the 1980s. The anti-Asian sentiment of the Hanson period — while to an extent replaced by anti-Muslim prejudice, reflecting the long-standing rule that the most recent arrivals endure the worst bigotry — now seems quaint. The notion that people seeking asylum should be locked up appals rather than appeals. The “Stolen Generation” apology was seen as long overdue and, importantly, a prelude to real efforts to end the national shame of the health gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Anti-terrorism laws began to be seen as politically-motivated intrusions on basic rights. Australia’s global status as an opponent of real climate change action was no longer acceptable.

In fact, the country has changed more than the government. That’s okay. They’re rarely in sync, and never for very long. And at the moment all the evidence suggests there’s widespread contentment with the extent to which the government, and its leader, reflects the country.

Most of all, new governments, especially ones with little ministerial experience, usually have problems with misjudgements and inexperience. They stumble and stuff up before they find their feet. That Labor hasn’t is testimony to its impressive discipline and an effective leadership team.

Still, there probably aren’t too many people who don’t think this is as good as it will get.