Australia's new PM puts green issues top of agenda

AUSTRALIA'S new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, made climate change his top priority yesterday, seeking advice on ratifying the Kyoto treaty and promising to go to next month's United Nations climate summit in Bali.

Mr Rudd, whose Labour party swept aside 11 years of conservative rule by Liberal John Howard in Saturday's elections, also spoke to the US president, George Bush, by phone, seeking to reassure him that Australia was still an ally.

However, he would not say when he planned to start a promised withdrawal of 500 Australian troops from Iraq.

"I emphasised to President Bush the centrality of the US alliance in our approach to foreign policy," Mr Rudd said yesterday in his first media conference as prime minister-elect, adding he would visit Washington early next year.

He had presented himself to voters as a new-generation leader by promising to remove troops from Iraq and join the international fight against global warming, further isolating Washington on both issues.

But while he intends immediately to overturn Mr Howard's opposition to the Kyoto pact, Mr Rudd has said he would negotiate a gradual withdrawal of Australian front-line forces from Iraq.

Mr Rudd, 50, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat and a staunch Christian, said that he discussed Kyoto ratification with Gordon Brown and Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

"President Yudhoyono formally invited me to attend the Bali conference, which will of course deal with climate change and where we go to now on Kyoto. I responded positively," he said.

In his victory speech after the poll, Mr Rudd said: "The Australian people have decided that we as a nation will move forward - to plan for the future, to prepare for the future, to embrace the future and together as Australians to unite and write a new page in our nation's history."

The surge in voter support for labour left Mr Howard's Liberal party in disarray, with up to six conservative ministers, including Mr Howard, likely to lose their seats in only the sixth change of government since the Second World War. Compounding the Liberal party's problems, Mr Howard's heir apparent, Peter Costello, said he would not seek the party leadership.

He said he would spend some time with his family and look to a new career.

"The time has come for me to open a new chapter in my life," Mr Costello said. "I will not seek nor will I accept the leadership or deputy leadership of the Liberal party."

Labour is set to hold up to 86 seats in the 150-seat parliament and Mr Rudd said he would name a cabinet later this week.

He is expected to forge closer ties with China and other Asian nations and has said he wants a more independent voice in foreign policy, with past Labour governments more supportive of an energetic United Nations and global organisations.

China's Xinhua news agency yesterday carried reports of Mr Rudd greeting the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, in fluent Mandarin in September and of his posting to China in the 1980s.

The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, sent a separate message to Mr Rudd, congratulating him on his election victory.

Mr Bush congratulated Mr Rudd on his election victory and also praised the leadership of his close friend Mr Howard, who once claimed to be Mr Bush's "deputy sheriff" in Asia.

"The United States and Australia have long been strong partners and allies, and the president looks forward to working with this new government to continue our historic relationship," the White House said in a statement.

Mr Rudd also pledged unity at home and an end to controversial offshore detention of illegal immigrants.

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