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Howard and the art of the comeback

John Howard
John Howard clings to power with a wafer-thin majority ahead of November's federal election  

CANBERRA, Australia (Reuters) -- Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a self-described political Lazarus, has again defied those who wrote his government's obituary earlier this year as he lines up as favorite to win a third term at a November 10 election.

The 62-year-old Howard is an old-style politician who operates on gut instinct -- a never-say-die operator who seemingly loves nothing better than having his back to the wall.

As he begins the five-week election campaign, Howard is riding high on a wave of nationalistic fervor, winning massive public support for turning away Middle East and Afghani boat people and for giving his full backing to the U.S. "war on terrorism."

Howard's conservative Liberal-National coalition clings to power with a paper thin majority and Labor only needs a 0.8 percent national swing from the last election in 1998 to win.

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But opinion polls show public approval for Howard surging as he flexes his leadership muscle at what he calls a time of crisis, leaving opposition Labor leader Kim Beazley struggling.

"At a time of immense security and economic challenges, above all the nation needs at the helm a group of men and women who have strength, who have experience and have a clear view of what they believe in," Howard said in announcing the election date.

Howard, whose middle name is Winston, is a self-confessed fan of Winston Churchill, Britain's prime minister during World War Two, and has positioned himself in recent weeks as Australia's leader at a time of global crisis.

"Nation Prepares For War" shouted the front page headline of The Australian newspaper on Friday above a story Howard would send troops to any U.S.-led conflict and a photograph of a stern looking Howard, flanked by equally stern-looking foreign and defense ministers and two Australian flags.

But while obviously cautiously confident of winning another term, Howard has spent 27 years in parliament and knows not to take the electorate for granted, consistently declaring the poll will be tough for the five-year-old government to win.

Political battler

Howard has been a member of the Liberal Party, which he now leads, since the age of 18. The cricket-loving solicitor entered parliament in 1974 in opposition and was appointed business and consumer affairs minister in a conservative government in 1975.

He was promoted to treasurer in 1977 and served there until 1983, when Labor regained office for a 13 year stretch.

During the Liberals' years in the political wilderness, Howard was embroiled in a string of leadership battles. He was elected leader in 1985, dumped in 1989 and recalled in 1995.

Howard watched his party lose an "unloseable" poll in 1993 thanks to one of the policies most dear to him, a goods and services tax.

But in 1996 he led his coalition to power, campaigning on a platform of tough conservative reforms to defeat Labor prime minister Paul Keating, a foe of long standing, in a landslide.

In 1998 Howard stunned political pundits when he was re-elected, on a paper-thin majority, after campaigning to introduce a 10 percent goods and services tax

Aboriginal thorn

Howard has never courted popularity, but in his second term has won the respect of opponents and admiration of supporters.

He describes himself as a economic radical and social conservative.

But the issue of reconciliation with disadvantaged Aborigines remains a thorn with Howard, who has been criticized for refusing to apologize for past mistreatment of Aborigines.

"It is my view... that one generation does not take responsibility for the misdeeds of another...," Howard said.

An avowed monarchist, Howard has always stood against public opinion that Australia should become a republic and sever ties with Britain. In 1999 he called a vote on the issue, but managed to defeat the republic on the issue of how to elect a president.

However a question mark hangs over Howard's longer-term political career. He has indicated he will step down as leader of the Liberals if he loses this election -- or would review his future when he turns 64 in July, 2003, if he held onto power.


• Liberal Party of Australia
• Australian Labor Party
• Parliament of Australia

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