A former diplomat to Beijing is set to replace Australian Prime Minister John Howard following tomorrow's federal election, according to both pre-poll surveys and the country's bookmakers.
Howard's conservative Liberal-National coalition government appears all but beaten by a center-left opposition headed by former diplomat Kevin Rudd in his first tilt at the nation's top office.
The Labor Party leader of just 11 months needs to wrest 16 seats from the coalition to secure a majority in Australia's 150-seat lower house of Representatives and with it an executive mandate, a feat well within grasp given Labor's consistent 10-point survey poll lead.
Perhaps more tellingly, bookmakers were offering $4.35 to those willing to wager $1 on the government's reelection and just $1.22 for Rudd's ascension last night.
The Howard government has presided over consistent economic growth since its election in 1996, but widespread disgruntlement at labor market reform championed by the 68-year-old prime minister, a succession of interest rate rises and the contrast of an ageing leader with a younger progressive alternative have seemingly shifted the political sands.
The mood change follows Howard's use of the senate majority he gained at the 2004 poll to legislate individual work contracts which empower employers to hire and fire more freely at the expense of workers' benefits, such as overtime and protection against unfair dismissal.
At the last election the government ran a campaign claiming interest rates would remain lower under it in a bid to frighten voters from endorsing Rudd's predecessor, a cynical promise in retrospect and one resented by many mortgagees in seats Howard had previously snatched from Labor.
Six interest-rate rises since, inflationary pressure presaging more and the emergence of Rudd, a 50-year-old mandarin-speaking former diplomat who was posted to Beijing for four years in the 1980s, have weaned the population off the man who promised - and largely delivered economically - a "relaxed and more comfortable Australia".
To the surprise of many pundits, the political honeymoon normally enjoyed by new opposition leaders has endured for Rudd, who grabbed Labor's reins from past Deputy Prime Minister Kim Beazley in a leadership challenge last December.
The former shadow foreign minister has since echoed Beazley's promise to abandon Howard's unpopular workplace agreements while deflecting criticism that he is beholden to Australia's once-powerful labor unions.
In a centrist approach, Rudd has emphasized his economic conservatism with a commitment to budgetary surpluses and reinforced them in the latter stages of the campaign by refusing to match the largesse promised to families by Howard and his treasurer Peter Costello at the 11th hour.
Howard's vow to retire and handover to Costello sometime during the next term, a promise he made amid flagging polls in September and intense leadership speculation, has also undermined the government's stocks.
Costello's ascension without facing the electorate has prompted Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph to break with its traditional support of the coalition.
"We now believe Mr Howard has reached his use-by date - if for no other reason than he almost believes it himself," the paper's editor opines on election eve.
"The 18-month to two year construction Mr Howard has put on his departure is, bluntly, an insult to the voters' collective intelligence."
But the source of Howard's sagging popularity runs deeper.
Participation in the Iraq War on the false premise the country possessed weapons of mass destruction while making under-the-table wheat deals with Saddam Hussein's regime and a racially charged leaflet forged by Liberal Party members in a marginal Sydney seat this week have compounded the interest rate failure.
Meanwhile, Rudd, formerly the head bureaucrat of the northern state of Queensland after his career as a diplomat, has presented progressive policies, such as a nationwide roll out of high-speed broadband as part of an education revolution, and vowed to pull out of Iraq.
Labor's commitment to the Kyoto protocol on climate change also contrasts the coalition's refusal to ratify it in favor of economic interests.
Source: China Daily/Agencies