CANBERRA, Oct 11 (Reuters) Chaplains for schools, a freeze on African refugees, billions of dollars in spending for roads and hospitals, even an exotic bird record-keeping schemes - they are all shots fired in Australia's long phoney election campaign.
For months voters have endured a A$1 million-a-day (900,000) advertising blitz in an undeclared campaign that weary Australians hope may end this weekend.
With spending promises on all sides topping A$20 billion, according to some estimates, veteran Prime Minister John Howard is expected to grit his teeth in the face of a year of terrible polling and ask voters to go to the ballot box in late November.
Howard has this week been constantly asked -- by the media and voters on the street -- when the election will be held.
His stock reply is he doesn't know, but that it will be held by early December. Asked if parliament will resume next week as planned, he simply says it is scheduled to sit.
Under the constitution, an election must be held by January 19.
''The prime minister will announce the date at an appropriate time,'' Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Howard and the Labor opposition leader Kevin Rudd are criss-crossing the nation, making funding announcements daily, kissing babies and shaking hands with voters.
An analysis of recent polling by Reuters this week showed the conservative government remains well behind Kevin Rudd's Labor Party, trailing by 13.6 points on preferences in October after the distribution of minority votes to the two major parties.
But Labor needs to win 16 more seats in the 150-seat lower house to take power.
Howard, 68, in power for 11 years and seeking a fifth consecutive term, has promised to hand over to his deputy, Peter Costello, during the next term if he wins.
The election will determine the future of Australia's military contribution to Iraq and its stance on climate change, with Labor promising to withdraw troops and sign the Kyoto Protocol, but it will be fought and won on domestic issues.
ADVERTISING BLITZ Howard highlighted the government's economic stewardship as unemployment on Thursday hit a 33-year low and in a pitch to the religious right, promised to fund school chaplains.
He also made an appeal to nationalist voters with a pledge to make the study of Australian history compulsory for students in high school and backed his immigration minister's recent freeze on more African refugees, in what rights groups called a veiled appeal to xenophobic voters in some parts of the country.
The freeze has been supported by fiery race issue politician Pauline Hanson, who is running for parliament after sparking outrage a decade ago with a call to end Asian immigration.
Rudd, 50, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, has unnerved many of his supporters by his unwillingness to oppose Howard on divisive areas.
Until Howard calls the poll, pro-government advertising on public campaigns is paid for by the taxpayer. Once the campaign is officially launched, pro-government advertising must be paid for by the ruling party.
To counter a stream of government advertising, trade unions have aided Labor with their own anti-government ad campaign.
The phoney campaign has sparked demands the current three-year parliamentary cycle be scrapped for a fixed four-year term.
''He should end this farce of phoney elections and allow governments to get on and govern,'' Rudd said.
REUTERS ARB BD1233