It still doesn't feel real. During the entire election build-up, I was waiting for that moment when the forces of history would collude to disappoint me yet again. Would Howard stumble upon a wedge-issue to exploit, yet again profiting at the hand of Rovian, "fifty-one percent" style politics? Would the electorate, wary of the potential of future interest-rate rises, abandon their flirtation with the contender and again re-elect Howard on the strength of his capable economic management? Something of this sort was bound to happen, at least. It invariably does when I have an interest in the outcome.
But this time it was different. John Howard finally met his end in the most satisfying, shaudenfreude-inspiring way possible (thank-you Maxine!) and Kevin Rudd - easily the most desirable choice for PM from a pretty thin crop on the ALP side - was the man to take his place. In the aftermath, I experienced a feeling of relief that probably can't be properly appreciated by those who haven't spent their entire adult lives feeling completely disenfranchised by the political process. It was the same, sudden discontinuity one feels when waking up from a nightmare and being confronted with that first, calming sight of reality through bleary eyes. The surreal horrors come to an abrupt end and one finds oneself ready to continue as though the dreams had never happened in the first place, save for that renewed respect one suddenly feels for the banality of waking life.
Waking up from the election, all of a sudden the paths to political progress didn't seem quite so steep, the forces opposing it not quite so irresistable and the case for change not quite so hopeless. Instead of having to scrap tooth and nail for ten years just for an acknowledgement from the government that climate change exists, we now awake to find our government adding its signature to the Kyoto Protocol. Instead of having the issue of reconciliation derided as "black-armband politics" - just one battle-front in a greater "culture war" (a war that I, for one, certainly never enlisted for) - we now awake to find our PM canvassing a formal apology to the Aboriginal people. This, most assuredly, marks a new era in Australian politics. This is a nation transformed.
However, for all this, we must be careful not to overstate what has been won here. Much of the "progress" embodied by Kevin Rudd are on issues that - under normal circumstances, anyway - should have really been resolved about a decade ago. Signing Kyoto, pushing for reconciliation, implementing a fair and flexible IR system etc. - all this would have surely been achieved already had Keating won a third term. On the face of it, Australia has been living in a timewarp for the past 11 years; a period of time completely out of step with the normal path of time. It's almost like we never quite made it to 1997: after 1996, we found ourselves trapped in a dream-like, atemporal vaccuum that completely subverted chronological progression; a period of 50s-era social policies and Victorian-era economic policies. Only now, with Howard's departure, can the nation collectively wake-up, shake their heads groggily, and ask: "What the hell just happened? Is it 1997 already?"
Yes, Australia, it is and unfortunately much has happened in the decade we've spent lying in bed, periodically hitting the democratic snooze alarm ("Just three more years of Howard, then I'll get moving. I promise") between terms of troubled dreams. Kyoto, reconcilliation, the restoration of workplace rights and so on: none of these, in the year 2007, should still be on the agenda. While it encouraging to see Rudd moving swiftly to bring Australia in line with the rest of the modern world on these issues (leaving the US conspicuously behind, particularly on the issue of climate change), we have much to catch up on. During the time where the conservatives have held political hegemony in this country, progressive issues such as abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, multiculturalism, church-state separation and so on have never really had the opportunity to be heard, let alone implemented. Will Rudd facilitate this dialogue, or are we just entering a period of slightly less belligerent, slightly more sane conservativism? Remember, as much as he isn't John Howard, Rudd still essentially believes that embryos are entitled to more rights than homosexuals. The battle hasn't been won, yet: it's barely even begun.
We may have awoken from a Kafkaesque nightmare, but as Kafka showed us, the reality we awake to after a night of "troubled dreams" may prove to be no less troubling. For now we are entitled to bask in the glow of a Rudd victory, but there is still much to do and progress - I suspect - will still have to be hard won.