After so long in opposition, victory is a sweet but strange fruit for the Labor faithful packed into a function room at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium. Between the party notching its election-winning 76th seat and the arrival on stage of Kevin Rudd, guests are occupied mostly by their own thoughts. "The polls had been good for so long . . . then came the bad ones yesterday," says silver-haired Tony Smith, a "booth captain" in Rudd's seat of Griffith. "Now it's relief."
Earlier, nerves were palpable. While the exit polls were encouraging and the swing to Labor was on, not enough seats were changing hands in the country's populous southeast. On the monitors, former leader Kim Beazley looms, warning that the result had better not hinge on the late-voting Western Australia, where rude prosperity was helping the government. In the flesh, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh sounds grim about her own state, where only two seats are classed as Coalition marginals. "It's a huge ask of Queensland," she says. "We're still in nailbiting territory."
The guests, mostly fresh-faced, local campaign workers, are prepared for a long night. They're decked out not in evening wear but those ubiquitous "Kevin 07" T shirts. As the fare shifts from nibbles to pies and sausage rolls, so the news changes. John Howard looks cooked in his own seat of Bennelong, generating the night's first full-throated roar. Better, Queensland is delivering. Labor's black sheep in recent elections, it's going to carry its local boy to the Prime Ministership. "We're a very partisan place," says Russell Griffiths in the center of a pulsing throng.
There's a hush to hear Howard concede, replaced by boos as he boasts how the Coalition has made Australia "stronger, prouder and more prosperous than it was 11 and a half years ago." A chant of "Bulls__" greets his claim that Australia's economy has made it "the envy of the world." This is a crowd sick of economic blather and thirsty for talk of higher values. Howard goes on a bit. "Now he's going to talk for 11 and a half years," someone quips.
Finally, Rudd and family his wife, two sons, daughter and son-in-law are on stage and the emotional dam breaks. The winner is composed, respectful to the vanquished; everyone is thanked in just the right order. He strikes a balance between maintaining the conservative tone of his campaign and tossing some juicy bones to the true believers. A reference to the "great Australian trade union movement" and a declaration to be "a P.M. for all Australians a P.M. for indigenous Australians" draw the loudest cheers. Later, as they spill into the mild Brisbane night, people glance at the bronze statue of Wally Lewis Queensland's greatest rugby league player whose finest moments occurred at a pre-renovated version of this stadium. Rudd is no footballer. But on this night, to those who've rejoiced in the end of the Howard era, he is a home-grown hero above all others.