Australian PM signals next poll will be his last

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CANBERRA, Sep 12 (Reuters) Australia's Prime Minister John Howard said today he will retire during his next term in office if he wins upcoming elections, a decision that could ease a leadership row and anger over his party's plunging popularity.

Howard, 68, won his party's support today to lead the government into elections due within months.

But his leadership has been under attack from within his Liberal Party because of dwindling support in opinion polls, with senior ministers suggesting he should hand power to his younger deputy, Treasurer Peter Costello, ahead of the election.

Howard earlier confronted his critics at a party meeting, where his leadership was not challenged, but he later told Australian television that he will hand power to Costello sometime during the next term if he wins another election.

''If the Australian people are good enough and kind enough to re-elect me again, there are a lot of things I want to do and I would want to approach those things with enormous energy,'' Howard told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.

''But I would expect, well into my term, that after those things have been implemented and bedded down I would probably or certainly form the view well into my term that it will make sense for me to retire.'' Costello, 50, has long been Howard's heir apparent, but his ambitions to take over as prime minister have been frustrated by Howard's previously open-ended commitment to remain Liberal Party leader.

Howard's comments are his first commitment to retire, and could help ease long-simmering leadership tensions with Costello.

The leadership crisis was brought on by consistently poor opinion poll results showing the government would overwhelmingly lose an election after 11 years in office, with Howard and several ministers in danger of losing their seats.

The Reuters poll trend analysis of the three main published opinion polls in Australia found Howard's government trailed the centre-left Labor opposition by 14.7 points in September, representing a six-point surge towards Labor since mid August.

FRANK LEADERSHIP TALKS Health Minister Tony Abbott, a staunch Howard supporter, told reporters today's party meeting included a ''very full and frank discussion'' about the government's poor position in the polls.

''At the end of the prime minister's talk, there was a strong and resounding support for the prime minister, for the existing leadership team, from the party room,'' said Abbott.

Costello told reporters today he had not fuelled the latest leadership speculation and he planned to go into the election as deputy Liberal leader.

''This government is a team and the team is led by John Howard and me,'' he said. ''It's the team that counts.'' The Australian newspaper today said the majority of Howard's cabinet had wanted Howard to resign and hand over to Costello in order to stem the ruling Liberal Party's losses.

But Howard said he believed the government could still win the coming election, and he urged his party to be united and focus on the policies needed to win another term.

Howard, who has won four straight elections, can call the poll at any time but must set the election date before mid November. Some analysts say he might now wait to hold the election in early December.

''I haven't fixed on a date yet,'' Howard said, adding the government still had legislation it wanted passed through parliament before an election.

REUTERS SG HS1641

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