Less than three weeks after the United States voted for change, the first anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s election has reminded us how little change we have had in Australia. Apart from a few largely symbolic measures, it is hard to point to any major differences in governing between Labor and the Coalition. The car industry bailout is just the latest example of their dreary sameness.

Of course, Barack Obama still has plenty of time in which to disappoint his supporters as well: indeed, given the weight of expectations, it’s inevitable he will disappoint some of them. Nonetheless, both in his policy positions and simply by who he is, Obama represents genuine change in a way that Rudd never could.

While Rudd last year tried to minimise the policy differences between government and opposition, Obama explicitly repudiated the central positions of the Bush administration. And whereas Obama’s race and personal history put him outside the usual political establishment, Rudd, an Anglo white male, is the bureaucrat from central casting, steeped in the traditions of Australia’s governing class.

Australia did have an opportunity for change, but it came three years earlier, in the shape of Mark Latham. Latham, unlike Rudd, eschewed the small-target strategy and aggressively differentiated himself from the Howard government, especially over the Iraq war. Like Obama, but unlike Rudd, he took novel and sometimes controversial positions that tried to bridge the left-right divide.

Nothing in Australia compares to the racial issue in America, but Latham, the boy from Green Valley, was as much of an outsider as we have been offered for a long time. And the electorate decided it was too much, giving us a further three years of John Howard instead.

At this point, Peter Brent and Bernard Keane (if they’re still reading) will leap in to tell me that Latham’s failure was due to his own flaws. (Brent compares him to Sarah Palin, not Obama.) No doubt there is some truth in this; certainly he didn’t have Obama’s degree of self-control (then again, not many people do).

But I think the primary reason America got the change that we didn’t is simply one of timing. The Democrats tried the small-target strategy first: John Kerry was their Kevin Rudd, running as Bush-lite. He lost, at the same time as Latham, and for much the same reason — the government had not had time to sufficiently discredit itself. Iraq had not yet gone pear-shaped, September 11 was still a recent memory, and the impetus for change was not yet strong enough.

Labor, having tried the radical option, fell back on conservatism for next time; the Democrats went the other way. Oddly enough, both strategies worked — not through their intrinsic merits, but because the arrogance and incompetence of the other side had had time to run its full course.

Peter Fray

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