Australia's Howard targets families as poll slides

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BRISBANE, Nov 12 (Reuters) Australian Prime Minister John Howard made a last-ditch appeal to family voters to as polls showed his conservative government facing near-certain election defeat on Nov.

24 in the wake of interest rate hikes.

Howard, standing in front of an Australian flag and a ''go for growth'' slogan, formally launched his campaign with a promise of full employment despite gathering international ''storm clouds'' due to rocketing oil prices and the US sub-prime mortgage meltdown.

''This election is about the future of our great nation, not the past,'' the 68-year-old veteran told cheering conservative faithful.

But storm clouds hung over Howard's campaign just a fortnight out from the election. The key Newspoll in the Australian newspaper showed the opposition Labor Party widening its year-long lead following last week's central bank interest rate hike, the sixth in three years.

Labor has opened a 10-point lead over Howard's coalition, which has ruled since 1996. The opposition leads 55 per cent to 45 per cent when preferences are distributed to the two main parties.

If confirmed at the ballot box, Labor would sweep to power with 92 seats in the 150-seat lower house, 32 more than at present, while conservative ranks would be decimated, losing 31, leading election analyst Antony Green said.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd needs to gain just 16 seats to win government. He will officially launch his campaign on Wednesday.

MORE RATE HIKES? Compounding the threat to Howard's key pledge of better economic management, the central bank today lifted forecasts for underlying inflation to above its 2-3 per cent comfort zone, suggesting more interest hikes are on their way in a nation where home ownership is near an obsession.

Howard, looking tired and fighting a cold, said a re-elected conservative government would offer tax-free accounts for first homebuyers to combat soaring house prices now soaking up 31 percent of average home incomes.

On top of already promised tax breaks worth 34 billion Australia dollars 31 billion dollars, his government would also grant refunds for education expenses and upfront payment of childcare fees, Howard said.

''Love me or loathe me, the Australian people know where I stand and what I believe in,'' he said to sustained applause.

Outside, protesters ignored rain to demonstrate against his government's labour and pro-coal environment policies.

In a campaign marred by accusations of copy-cat policy theft, Rudd accused the government of being stale and said Howard had re-badged key Labor plans.

''I cannot see any new ideas for the future on climate change, I cannot see any new ideas for the future on critical infrastructure challenges. Mr Howard has run out of ideas for the future, his government has gone stale,'' Rudd said.

Howard is fighting to overturn a mood among voters for change despite the country's 17 straight years of economic expansion and with unemployment at 33-year lows.

He is also fighting accusations his spending promises will fuel inflation and trigger more interest rate rises, expected by economists as soon as next month.

Betting has firmed behind a Labor victory with Centrebet placing the odds of a Rudd prime ministership at 1.36 Australian dollars against 3.15 dollar for Howard.

REUTERS RJ RK1355

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