Australia's new PM Rudd acts swiftly on climate

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BRISBANE, Nov 25 (Reuters) Australia's new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, made climate change his top priority today, seeking advice on ratifying the Kyoto pact and telling Indonesia he will go to December's UN climate summit in Bali.

Rudd, who swept aside 11 years of conservative rule by John Howard in Saturday elections, also spoke to US President George W Bush by phone, but would not say when he planned to start a promised withdrawal of 500 Australian combat troops from Iraq.

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

Rudd, 50, presented himself to voters as a new-generation leader by promising to pull troops out of Iraq and ratify the Kyoto Protocol capping greenhouse gas emissions, further isolating Washington on both issues.

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

Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, said he discussed Kyoto ratification with his British counterpart Gordon Brown, as well as 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.

Rudd, a staunch Christian, attended church today and planned talks with officials and advisers about administrative arrangements for ratification of Kyoto as soon as possible.

The surge in voter support to Labor left Howard's Liberal Party in disarray, with up to six conservative ministers, including Howard, likely to lose their seats in only the sixth change of government since World War Two.

Howard was in line to become the first prime minister in Australia since 1929 to lose his own constituency. Compounding the Liberal Party's problems, Howard's heir apparent Peter Costello said he would not seek the party leadership.

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

CLOSER TO CHINA Rudd 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 Labor governments more supportive of an energetic United Nations and global organisations.

China's official Xinhua news agency today carried reports of Rudd greeting Chinese President Hu Jintao in fluent Mandarin in September and of his posting to China in the 1980s.

''This period of history gave him close contact with China and a chance to observe and understand China's politics, economy and culture,'' the report said.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao sent a separate message to Kevin Rudd, congratulating him on his election victory.

Bush congratulated Rudd on his election victory, and praised the leadership of his close friend Howard, who once claimed to be 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.

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

Labor would also care for Aborigines after a conservative intervention this year to seize control of remote outback indigenous communities with troops and police in order to stamp out child sexual assaults and alcohol abuse.

But Labor could be frustrated by a hostile upper house. The conservatives will have a Senate majority until July next year, possibly delaying Rudd's agenda and his promise to dump unpopular labour laws which supercharged his victory.

Centre-left Labor will have to negotiate with diverse minor Senate parties including the left-leaning Australian Greens and the conservative, Christian values Family First party.

Outgoing Foreign Minister Alexander Downer glumly said it had been hard for the conservative government to present itself as fresh and new after more than 11 years, despite 16 years of economic expansion and unemployment at 33-year lows.

It is likely to be business as usual for Australian financial markets on Monday, with the decisiveness of the Labor victory and Rudd's promise of continuity of economic policy removing uncertainty for investors.

REUTERS SZ RN1127

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