Humiliation looms for Australia's PM

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Comedians from Australia's leading satirical television programme, The Chaser's War on Everything, recently hired a silver DeLorean sports car and ambushed the Prime Minister, John Howard, on his regular morning walk, offering to take him "back to the future".

Back to the middle of last year, to be precise, when Mr Howard, according to a deal hatched with Peter Costello, Australia's long-time Treasurer, was supposed to hand over power to his younger deputy. The 68-year-old Prime Minister denies the existence of such a deal, but he may wish that he could step into that sports car and have it transport him into the past, as the DeLorean-based time machine did in the Back to the Future trilogy. Instead, he faces defeat – possibly humiliation – at the hands of the Labor opposition in an election on Saturday.

Eighteen months ago, Mr Howard had already been in power for three and a half terms. He was already Australia's second-longest serving Prime Minister, dwarfed only by his great hero, Robert Menzies, the conservative leader who ruled for 17 years. Menzies left office at a time of his own choosing, retiring in 1966. Mr Howard could have done the same, and still have had his place in the history books.

Instead, he clung to power, infuriating Mr Costello and wearing voters' patience so thin that if they do throw his Liberal-National coalition government out next weekend, it will be overwhelmingly because they want a change of face. Mr Howard may even lose his own seat, Bennelong, which he has held for nearly 34 years, becoming only the second PM in history to do so.

His challenger, Kevin Rudd, 50, is not a particularly gifted politician, nor a man of great charisma. But the blond, chubby-faced Queenslander, elected Labor leader only a year ago, has managed not to put a foot wrong during the campaign, largely thanks to his biggest asset: not being John Howard.

There is an overwhelming mood for change – but not radical change. So Mr Rudd, a former diplomat who looks like a bank manager, is being careful not to frighten the voters. His spending promises, unveiled last week at the official Labor campaign launch, were praised for being less profligate than the coalition's, announced at their launch the previous day.

Labor has pledged to scrap highly unpopular workplace reforms. But its policies are fundamentally indistinguishable from the coalition's. Both have promised sound economic management and billions of dollars in tax cuts. Both claim to be committed to tackling global warming – somewhat belatedly on the part of Mr Howard, who until less than a year ago was a climate-change sceptic. Equally, the government has accused the opposition of stealing its policies, a charge that has some foundation.

The campaign, which began in earnest after the election was called five weeks ago, has actually been going on for months. But given that it could see a change of government after 11 years and propel a relatively new, untried politician to the helm, it has been a strangely passionless affair. Mr Rudd's predecessor, Mark Latham, has called it "a Seinfeld election, a show about nothing", with both parties, he claims, pandering to middle-class greed.

Mr Rudd – who has promised "new leadership" and an "education revolution" – does not use such colourful language. "Mate" and "fair dinkum" (meaning "true" or "genuine") are about as colourful as he gets. Some commentators claim that he has adopted those expressions only since he began his tilt for the prime ministership.

Mr Howard has the reputation of a political Lazarus. In 2001 he came from behind to win an election after refusing to allow the Tampa, a Norwegian freighter carrying a load of shipwrecked asylum-seekers, to approach Australia. In 2004 he won after promising to keep interest rates low. But there have been six rate rises since then – and this time there is no Tampa on the horizon.