Australian PM Howard sets election for Nov 24

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Canberra, Oct 14: Australia's veteran Prime Minister John Howard today called a national election for Nov 24, stressing experience over his Labor opponent and shrugging off polls that show he faces near-certain defeat.

Howard, 68, in power for 11 years but lagging well behind youthful Labor leader Kevin Rudd in opinion surveys, said that only he was able to lead Australia into the future and continue the country's current resource-driven economic boom.

''Love me or loath me the Australian people know where I stand on all the major issues of importance to their future,'' said Howard, who is danger of losing in his own Sydney-based seat.

Howard, Australia's second-longest serving leader, said the country was enjoying remarkable prosperity, but promised voters the best years could lie ahead.

''But that won't happen automatically. This country does not need new leadership, it does not need old leadership, it needs the right leadership,'' he said, unveiling what will likely become the conservatives' fighting slogan.

But if Howard wins he has already said he will hand over the prime ministership to his deputy, Treasurer Peter Costello, some time during the next term.

The election will determine the future of Canberra's military contribution in Iraq and climate change stance, with Labor promising to bring home combat troops and sign the Kyoto climate pact. But the poll will be fought and won on domestic issues.

Generation Change

Rudd, 50, has promised generational change to take the country into the future, including sweeping reforms to healthcare, education and controversial labour laws introduced by Howard.

''What I'm offering the Australian people is new leadership,'' Rudd said. ''Australia can't afford another three years of a government which has already had 11 years ... a government without fresh ideas for our nation's future.'' A newspaper opinion poll today gave Labor 59 per cent of the overall vote, compared with the coalition government's 41 percent. But Labor needs to pick up an imposing 16 more seats in the 150-seat lower house to take power.

Howard stressed his economic stewardship and tough security credentials in his quest for a fifth term. Unemployment last week hit a 33-year low amid the ongoing global resources boom, fattening Australia's mining sector.

But Howard's bedrock support in outer suburban mortgage belts has been shaken since the last election three years ago by successive interest rate rises to 6.5 per cent under a tightening cycle that began back in 2002.

''We are going in as underdogs but there is no tougher political fighter than John Howard and that is what Australia needs,'' said Health Minister Tony Abbott.

Howard acknowledged that his support for the war in Iraq, to which Australia has around 1,500 troops committed, may also cost him support during the election, with as many as 80 percent of people opposed to involvement, according to surveys.

Rudd reiterated his plan for withdrawal, while holding intact Australia's close alliance with the United States.

Howard has promised a national vote on recognition for Aborigines in the country's constitution if he wins, a move dismissed by opponents as a last ditch effort to present a ''vision'' to lure back jaded former conservative supporters.

But political analyst Nick Economou said Howard's biggest error may have been his championing of unpopular labour laws, which cut benefits and make it easier to hire and fire workers.

''It has made people really insecure in what should be a time of prosperity and stability. They've committed a big error of judgment. That's what's going to bring them down,'' Economou said.


Reuters
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