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''Ordinary'' Australia PM celebrates decade in power

Written by: Staff

CANBERRA, Feb 27 (Reuters) Conservative Australian Prime Minister John Howard celebrates a decade in power on Thursday on the back of continued economic prosperity and an iron will on security, with voters in no mood to dislodge him from office.

The festivities, however, will be low key, in line with Howard's image as a humble and ordinary man who shuns the trappings of success and loves nothing more than relaxing with his family and watching cricket.

''The key to Howard's appeal lies in his very lack of charisma.

His appearance of ordinariness is perhaps his greatest political asset,'' social commentator Hugh Mackay wrote in the Age newspaper.

In October 2004, Howard, a former failed leader who once derided himself as ''Lazarus with a triple bypass'', won his fourth straight election and the most powerful mandate in a generation.

Now 66, he is only the second prime minister to notch up 10 years in office. His political hero Robert Menzies, the founder of the ruling Liberal Party, served more than 18 years as prime minister before retiring in 1966.

Howard was swept to power on March 2, 1996, ending 13 years of rule by the centre-left Labor Party, on a promise to revitalise the economy and make Australia more ''relaxed and comfortable'' about its place in the world.

A decade on, the nation's 25th prime minister has now won four elections in a row. Opinion polls show Howard continues to attract strong voter support.

His longevity has frustrated the hopes of his heir-apparent, Treasurer Peter Costello, who for 10 years has overseen Australia's remarkable economic strength, which has been central to the government's electoral success.

CONTROVERSY BRUSHED OFF Over the past decade, Howard has emerged unscathed from a series of controversies, including false government claims during the 2001 election campaign that illegal immigrants threw children overboard from a refugee boat, and sending troops to war in Iraq based on the false belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

He has been able to brush off the controversies and turn public opinion in his favour by highlighting his economic management, strong stand against illegal immigration, and firm hold on national security.

During his time in power, average wages have risen ahead of inflation, unemployment has hit 30-year lows and Australians have enjoyed increased spending power on the back of booming house prices, fuelled by record-low interest rates.

Howard has continued to reap the political dividends. The latest Newspoll gives him a personal approval rating of 51 percent, to just 28 percent for his Labor rival Kim Beazley.

The polls have not always been so kind.

First elected to parliament in 1974, Howard served as treasurer under Malcolm Fraser until the conservatives lost power in 1983. He became leader of the Liberal Party in 1985 and led the party to election defeat in 1987.

The following year, Howard's approval rating fell to a low of 18 percent, prompting one magazine headline to ask ''Why on earth does this man bother?''. ''Mr. 18 Percent'' was dumped a year later.

In early 1995, the Liberal Party again turned to Howard after Alexander Downer, now his long-serving foreign minister, stood down after a brief but gaffe-filled time as party leader. Howard went on to defeat Labor's Paul Keating at the 1996 election.

FOCUS ON FOREIGN POLICY Howard rose to power with a strong focus on domestic issues but little experience or apparent interest in foreign policy. But foreign policy and defence now dominate his agenda.

The Age newspaper describes Howard as ''the expeditionary prime minister'' who has sent Australian troops to conflicts in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Australia spearheaded a United Nations-mandated intervention force to restore order in East Timor in 1999, after the former Indonesian territory voted to break away from Jakarta.

Howard has also implemented a more interventionist policy in the South Pacific, sending police and troops to neighbouring Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

A close friend of U.S. President George W. Bush, Howard was among the first to commit troops to the Iraq war in 2003 and the campaign to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001. Australia still has troops in both countries.

A Saulwick poll published last week, however, found growing dissatisfaction with Howard's stand on Iraq, with 58 percent saying he is not looking after Australia's interests. The poll also found 50 percent of those surveyed believe Australia is a meaner nation after his decade in power.

Howard cites his greatest achievements as Australia's economic strength and self-confidence. The Bali bombings, which killed 88 Australians on the Indonesian holiday island in 2002, were his worst moment.

The strong support in the polls gives Howard the rare chance to choose the timing of his departure from the top job. Apart from Menzies, all other prime ministers have been either dumped by their party, dumped by voters, or died in office.

A poll published in Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper on Monday found more than half of those questioned want Howard to stay on as prime minister, while only about 30 percent believe Costello should be given a chance.

Howard is showing no signs of wanting to retire.

''I still have enormous enthusiasm, almost boyishly so for the job,'' he told one radio interviewer.


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