Australian conservatives hunt for new leaders

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CANBERRA, Nov 26 (Reuters) Australia's conservative parties were in disarray today after their election loss, with another leader quitting and Labor claiming the prized Sydney seat held by outgoing prime minister John Howard for 30 years.

Labor's Kevin Rudd was swept into power in Saturday's election on a promise of new-generation leadership, ending 11 years of Liberal-National Party coalition rule.

Howard, 68, became the first prime minister since 1929 to lose his own seat, with Labor's high-profile candidate and former television reporter Maxine McKew claiming his Sydney seat of Bennelong on Monday.

''This is now a Labor seat for the first time,'' McKew told reporters in Sydney.

McKew's claim came as Howard's Liberals searched for a new leader to bring the party back from crushing defeat. Howard's anointed successor, former treasurer Peter Costello, said yesterday he did not want the job.

Mark Vaile, deputy prime minister under Howard and leader of the rural-based National Party, junior partner in the coalition government, also quit his job today saying it was time for his party to make a fresh start.

''I think it is time for a new generation of Nationals to take up the challenge,'' he said.

Outgoing environment minister Malcolm Turnbull, best known for leading the failed push for an Australian republic in the 1990s, will contest the Liberal leadership, along with former health minister Tony Abbott, who once trained to be a priest.

Outgoing defence minister Brendan Nelson, a doctor and one-time Labor supporter, will also stand for the job.

In Canberra, hundreds of rubbish bins lined corridors outside ministerial offices in Parliament, while conservative staffers heaped files and boxes onto trolleys for disposal ahead of only the sixth change of government in Australia since World War Two.

Howard's office was full of bins, his name had been erased from the nameplate and his prime ministerial Web site shut down, with material from the site archived by the National Library.

However, he remains caretaker prime minister until Rudd names his new team, and until they are officially sworn in by Australia's Governor-General, possibly by the end of the week.

Rudd began work on Monday on the shape of Labor's first government in 11 years, holding meetings with his deputy Julia Gillard in Brisbane. Key defence, foreign affairs and environment roles remain undecided.

''We've been working on the issue but ultimately Kevin picks his ministry and I think that that is absolutely the best way to do it,'' Gillard said.

Rudd said his government would overturn Howard's long opposition to an apology to Aboriginal Australians for past injustices since white colonisation and said parliament would say sorry early next year when it resumed. ''It will be early in the parliamentary term.'' Rudd will break Labor tradition and select his own ministerial team rather than wait for Labor's divided factions to decide who should serve on the front bench, but he is refusing to say whom he will appoint until the party meets on Thursday.

He has guaranteed that his former schoolmate Wayne Swan will be treasurer, Lindsay Tanner will be finance minister and Gillard, Australia's first woman deputy prime minister, will take charge of the contentious workplace portfolio.

Rudd has refused to confirm whether he will make lawyer Robert McClelland his foreign minister, or former rock star Peter Garrett the environment minister, after both men slipped up on policy during the election campaign.

REUTERS ARB SSC1306

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