CANBERRA, Oct 14 (Reuters) Australia's veteran Prime Minister John Howard Today called a national election for November 24, stressing his 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 only he was able to lead Australia into the future and continue the country's current recource-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,'' the conservative Howard said after visiting the governor-general, representative of Australia's head of state Queen Elizabeth.
Howard, Australia's second-longest serving leader, said the country was enjoying a remarkable level of national prosperity, but promised 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.'' The poll will determine the future of Australia's military contribution in Iraq and its stance on climate change, with Labor promising to withdraw troops and sign the Kyoto climate pact, but it will be fought and won on domestic issues.
Rudd, 50, has promised generational change to take the country into the future, including sweeping reforms to health, education and controversial labour laws introduced by Howard.
Those laws, cutting conditions and making it easier to hire and fire workers, are a major reason first-time voters and those aged under 29 are set to dump Howard, with three-quarters backing Labor, a Taverner/Sun Herald newspaper poll said on Sunday.
Labor has 59 per cent of the overall vote, compared with the government's 41 per cent, said the poll.
But Labor, which has not won an election for 14 years, needs to pick up 16 seats in the 150-seat lower house to take power.
The survey showed Rudd was on track for a win, with up to 20 seats expected to change from government hands on polling day, the newspaper said.
Howard, seeking a fifth term, has stressed his economic stewardship and tough security credentials to win back voters.
Unemployment last week hit 33-year lows amid the ongoing global resources boom.
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.
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.
''Howard's danger is that the election has turned into a referendum on whether he has stayed too long, whether he is too old, or tired, to have a vision for the future,'' political columnist Glenn Milne wrote in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
REUTERS ARB KP0840