Howard era comes to a close as Rudd sets Australia on new path

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The Independent Online

Kevin Rudd, by his own admission, has only ever been drunk twice, and on the second occasion he ended up in a New York strip club, an incident that returned to haunt him. So Australia's new Prime Minister did not stay up carousing after his historic election victory; he had a quiet night with his family and then got up early yesterday to go to church.

Many of his countrymen, however, were nursing hangovers as they woke up to a new political era – the first Labor government for more than a decade, and the end of John Howard's long and divisive reign.

Mr Rudd, 50, a devout Christian, not only managed to oust Mr Howard, he achieved one of the biggest swings in Australian history: just over 6 per cent, with nearly 77 per cent of the vote counted. So comprehensive was Mr Howard's defeat that he looked certain to lose his own seat, which he held for nearly 34 years, to a former television journalist, Maxine McKew.

Mr Rudd,a former diplomat, was already setting Australia on a new course. He said he had reassured George Bush that the Australia-US military alliance would remain a centrepiece of the country's foreign policy. But it seems likely that he also discussed with Mr Bush his intention to stage a gradual withdrawal of Australia's 550 combat troops from Iraq.

Mr Rudd spoke to Gordon Brown and the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, about his plans to ratify the Kyoto protocol and attend a key UN climate change conference in Bali next month. Mr Howard had refused to sign up to the agreement on capping carbon emissions.

Mr Rudd has yet to name most of his ministerial team. But Julia Gillard, a former trade union lawyer, is already Australia's first female Deputy Prime Minister, while the Treasurer is Wayne Swan.

As Mr Howard and his wife, Janette, prepared to move out of Kirribilli House, the Prime Minister's official Sydney residence, recriminations within his conservative Liberal Party were already beginning.

Mr Howard had resisted pressure to hand over power to his Treasurer, Peter Costello, and yesterday one Liberal politician, Ian Macdonald, said that with Mr Costello as leader, the Liberals and their coalition partners, the National Party, might have hung on in government.

The result was not yet definite because postal votes have not been counted, but Labor was on course to win at least 83 seats in the 150-member parliament.