“It ain’t over till it’s over,” said Yogi Berra at his most Chestertonian.  Charles de Gaulle, in more meditative style, observed: “Les fins des régimes sont toujours tristes.”  Both maxims are relevant in the context of Australia’s general election on November 24, 2007, which saw John Howard—prime minister since 1996—crushed by an untried but personally popular Australian Labor Party leader, Kevin Rudd.  Mr. Howard thus followed into the sunset Tony Blair and Spain’s José-María Aznar, his fellow lieutenants in the so-called War on Terror.  He had the additional humiliation of being defeated in his own electorate, the first Australian prime minister since 1929 to suffer this punishment.

Drawing up a balance sheet for assessing Mr. Howard’s reign (the longest of any Australian leader save for Sir Robert Menzies) is difficult, purely because its highlights bear no discernible relation to the rest of his actions and give the impression of having been brought about by a different person.  These highlights, which deserve to be remembered amid the general scorn Mr. Howard now inspires, are two in number: the freeing of East Timor in 1999, and the de facto ending two years later of mass illegal immigration.

Perhaps one day, when the principal actors in Australia’s political dramas of the 1970’s, 80’s and early 90’s are all dead, it will be possible to discuss both temperately and lengthily that hoariest and most squalid of Australian political delusions: the belief—religiously upheld by Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, and Paul Keating—that Australia’s basic survival depended on abjectly appeasing Indonesia.  The more obviously immoral Jakarta’s leading mullahs and their nominally secular stooges became, and the more blatant their genocide against Catholics in East Timor (which they invaded with full Australian approval in 1975), the larger the blank checks that successive Australian governments signed over to them; and the more desperate the defenses of this Danegeld which the “Jakarta lobby” of think tanks and foreign-policy bureaucrats resorted to making.  It is not as if we can even trace all of this craven behavior to Australian sectarianism.  After all, the most degenerate and embarrassing apologist for Indonesia was a self-proclaimed Catholic—namely, Mr. Keating.  Meanwhile successive Indonesian presidents merely took Australian money—and, in particular, Australian military training—as if it were their God-given right.  In 1998, one such president (B.J. Habibie), more honest than the rest, explained in pellucid language to his country’s militia what their own peacemaking role would be: “Your job is to clean East Timor from the East to the West and leave nothing alive but ants.”

No more.  Once disgust among Australian voters at Jakarta’s murder machine proved too great for even Mr. Howard to overlook, he sent Australian armed forces into East Timor.  In so doing, he ended the quarter-century-old antipodean policy of craven groveling to Indonesia’s tinpot tyrants.  The threats of Indonesian revanchisme, with which that failed state’s Australian toadies sought to terrify us, proved as insubstantial as dreams.

Mr. Howard’s other worthwhile achievement had connections with the first.  Indonesia, however humiliated, could still be a nuisance to Australia.  Successive boatloads of Third World arrivals on Australian soil attested to this fact, as well as to other Third World nations’ tendency to consider Australia a garbage dump for their own “wretched refuse.”  It seemed unimaginable that Mr. Howard could ever take on Australia’s own bleeding-heart multiculti lobbies, who, of course, regarded these boatloads as godsends.  Then the miracle happened.  Emboldened partly by September 11, the prime minister started using language not heard from Australian officialdom in almost four decades: “We will decide who come to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”  For a while there, he actually sounded like immigration-restrictionist gadfly Pauline Hanson.  As a result, the 2001 election saw, for the first time since 1966, a swing toward the incumbent administration.  The people smugglers, understandably amazed at the very thought of an Australian head of government meaning business, were sufficiently frightened by this prospect to take their filthy trade elsewhere.

So much for Mr. Howard’s merits; but his sins make a depressing catalog.  Early in his first term, after Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre, he imposed on us some of the most punitive and degrading gun laws of any ostensibly free nation outside Canada.  His contempt for states’ rights resulted in the most centralized rule Australia has ever had.  So little did his own allies trust him that one of his own senators, George Brandis, was obliged in 2004 to deny having called him a “lying rodent.”  (Senator Brandis refused to dispute having called him “a rodent.”)  Lusting as Mr. Howard did for mere longevity in office, he filleted the Liberal Party to which he belonged, with the result that not only is the new post-Howard federal Opposition a mere joke, but the party is, if anything, still feebler at state level.  Not once since 2001 have the Liberals won a single state or territorial election.  His own attempts to cling to the prime ministry by darkly invoking labor-union dictatorship if he was defeated—for all the world as if Australia in 2007 were as union-paralyzed as was Britain in 1978-79—proved nothing except his diminished sense of reality.  While illegal immigration has been staunched, legal immigration remains at postwar highs: more than 131,000 during the 2005-06 fiscal year.  As for Mr. Howard’s insistence on Australian membership in the Coalition of the Willing (that ultimate neocon betrayal of genuine conservatism), this played little overt part in the election campaign.  Yet among parents of draft-age children, it probably did as much as his anti-union rhetoric to make him hated.

Mr. Rudd—a boyish-seeming 50 years old, telegenic, clever, fluent in Mandarin, and suitably ruthless in private—cannot be seriously incommoded by anything the Liberals in their current condition might offer as a counterweight to him.  There is still room, in Australia, for a genuinely right-wing, socially conservative party to fling the Liberals into the trash can and to offer against Mr. Rudd’s smooth bromides “a choice, not an echo.”  But no such party can flourish as long as it is too scared of Big Business to demand any immigration cutbacks.