The last time Labor partied quite this hard was in 1972, when Gough Whitlam swept it back to power after 23 years in the federal sin bin. On Saturday night the Labor faithful were again in raptures as they cheered the party's new savior, Kevin Rudd, and the end of John Howard's long run as Prime Minister. Best keep the ecstasy to a minimum, Rudd jokingly advised a crowd of several hundred campaign workers in Brisbane: just "have a strong cup of tea." But the beer cans went on opening. "Eleven and a half yearsh," people kept saying, happily slurring the s. "Eleven and a half years is just too long."
"It's time," had been Whitlam's message; time for change. Rudd updated the sentiment. "Today Australia has looked to the future," he told air-punching supporters and TV viewers around the country. "Today the Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward."
For all the excitement, Labor's triumph seemed somehow old news, a foregone conclusion. Thanks to opinion polls, Australians had expected a Rudd victory for almost a year and bet more than $7 million on the hunch. Since last December, when a demoralized Labor Party elected the former diplomat and bureaucrat as its sixth leader in a decade, not a single national opinion poll and by election day there'd been more than 100 had put Howard's conservatives in the lead. "Throughout the year I have had a fairly gloomy view of our prospects," conceded former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
Yet predictable as the election seemed, few were prepared for the scale of the government's defeat. Labor had to capture 16 Coalition seats to win; at press time it had taken 24, with the outcome in five seats still in doubt. More shocking for the Coalition, Howard was hanging on by his fingernails to his northwestern Sydney seat of Bennelong and appeared set to become the first Prime Minister since 1929 to be turned out of his own electorate.
A year ago, however, few but the fiercest Labor partisans thought any kind of victory was possible. The party was in shambles, limping from opinion-poll rubbishing to new leadership ballot and back again, and desperate enough to bet the house on a man who seemed to many a most unlikely Labor leader. At 49, Rudd was not only young but inexperienced: he'd been in Parliament for just eight years and shadow Foreign Minister for less than five. He was an active Christian in a resolutely secular party, and said the machinations of Labor's factional power-brokers "revolted" him. Known as Pixie for his fresh looks, and Dr Death for his cold stare of disapproval, Rudd was said to have few friends in Canberra. Former Labor leaders Paul Keating and Mark Latham described him, respectively, as "a menace" and "a terrible piece of work." But by picking left-winger Julia Gillard as his deputy, he won over the factions and got the leadership. He started campaigning the same day. Labor's poll numbers jumped from the low 40s to the high 50s; within three months Rudd led Howard as preferred P.M. By the time the election was called, in October, Howard was staring Dr Death in the face.