Australia's Howard paints gloomy picture for govt

 
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CANBERRA, May 22 (Reuters) Australian Prime Minister John Howard told his conservative government lawmakers today the government could be annihilated in an election late this year.

Painting a gloomy picture just months before the election, he said voters appeared attracted to the opposition centre-left Labor Party despite the government's unveiling of more than 49 billion dollars in pre-election budget handouts, and spending more than 110 million Australian dollars to advertise its programmes.

''The public opinion polls suggest we would not just lose, but be annihilated,'' a spokesman quoted Howard as telling a closed meeting of government lawmakers. Labor's projected vote was the highest since he first won office in 1996.

After Howard's 11 years in power and four election wins, the polls have shown a strong surge this year in support for Labor and Kevin Rudd, the youthful leader who took the job in December.

Howard is due to call national elections in the second half of 2007 and is widely expected to go to the polls in late October or early November, after hosting the Sydney summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group leaders in September.

The prime minister told ruling coalition lawmakers today the polls suggested an emphatic win for Labor, although voters had no apparent hostility towards them and believed the government had done a good job managing the economy.

Australia has enjoyed sustained economic growth on Howard's watch, on the back of a resources boom, with unemployment at 32-year lows and continued low inflation and interest rates.

He noted that the three most visible figures in the cabinet, himself, Treasurer Peter Costello and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, had been in their current jobs since 1996.

STUCK IN THE PAST? Rudd, 49, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, has attacked Howard as a man who is stuck in the past. Howard, who turns 68 in July, has responded by criticising Rudd's inexperience.

''People are thinking about change,'' he said. ''People think the economy is so good that the Labor Party can't muck it up.

That is the mood in the community. We need to recognise our problem to do anything about it.'' The spokesman said Howard had warned coalition lawmakers not to expect a poll rebound in their favour in the next few months.

His comments came as the latest Newspoll in the Australian newspaper found the government trailing Labor by 14 points, with 43 per cent support against 57, on a two-party basis, where votes for smaller groupings are redistributed to the main parties to ultimately decide an election result.

Howard's coalition won a 27-seat majority in the 150-seat parliament at the last election in October 2004, taking 52.7 percent of the two-party preferred vote.

Labor, which last won a national election in 1993, needs to gain 16 seats to return to power.

REUTERS SM VV1342

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