British voters might be forgiven for feeling just a little envious of our antipodean cousins. Having had the prospect of a general election dangled before us for a couple of weeks, and then summarily snatched away, we can only look on as Australia prepares for an election that is really going to happen. The Prime Minister, John Howard, has asked the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament: Australians will vote on 24 November.
In fact, Mr Howard and his main challenger, the Labour Party leader, Kevin Rudd, have been skirmishing publicly for several months. And if Mr Rudd had not been aware of the perils that lay ahead, the recent media exposé of his drunken visit to a New York strip-club four years ago should have alerted him. We can expect more of the same in the weeks to come. The campaign promises to be in the best Australian tradition of robust brutalism.
The next six weeks, though, while inevitably taking on the character of a presidential contest, will be about much more than point-scoring over personal foibles. At least we hope they will because, in deciding between a record fifth term for Mr Howard and a first term for Mr Rudd, Australia faces a choice not only between two quite different individuals, but between starkly contrasting policies.
Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat, is 18 years younger than John Howard, and the policy differences may derive in part from that generational gap. But they also reflect quite a different outlook on the major issues of today. Mr Rudd has pledged to set a greater distance between Canberra and Washington, which would include the withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq. He is committed to signing Australia up to the Kyoto treaty on climate change – something Mr Howard has steadfastly resisted, despite mounting evidence that Australia is already on the frontline of global warming.
As the campaign proper opened, John Howard trailed 12 points behind his challenger. But as we in Britain have learnt all over again in the past two weeks, even 24 hours can be an eternity in politics. The economic indicators are on Mr Howard's side. The Australian economy is booming; unemployment is the lowest it has been for 30 years. He is also a ruthless campaigner, who has scurrilously played the populist cards of race and immigration to lethal effect.
So Mr Rudd has his work cut out. But after 11 years in power, Mr Howard no longer looks invincible. His talk of retiring half way through a new term amounts to an admission that the voters have an appetite for change. In Mr Rudd, Labour has a leader whose approach looks fresh, realistic and global. His six-week joust with John Howard promises to be a contest to savour.