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Just another work day as Australia PM marks decade

Written by: Staff

CANBERRA, Mar 2: For Australian Prime Minister John Howard, it was just another day at the office today as he marked a decade in power, standing in parliament confidently fending off attacks on his conservative government.

''I'm working today,'' Howard told reporters. He said he still had plenty of energy and enthusiasm for the job, giving little hope to his ambitious heir apparent, Treasurer Peter Costello, that he would retire any time soon.

Howard was first elected to power on March 2, 1996, and his ruling Liberal Party is cashing in on the anniversary with a series of high-priced functions which it hopes will raise up to 1 million Australian dollars for its campaign coffers.

But Howard, who has urged government lawmakers to ensure the celebrations remain low-key and focused on the next 10 years, spent the day in much the same way he has spent the rest of his tenure -- at his desk.

A fit 66-year-old who began today with his regular early morning walk, Howard has repeatedly refused to say if he will lead his party into the next election, due in late 2007, but has anointed Costello to replace him if he falls under a bus.

''If I were to go under that bus -- and I am very careful crossing the roads -- (Peter Costello is) logically the person to take my place and it's a widely held view in the party,'' Howard told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Howard gave two radio interviews, launched a book about himself and his government, and conducted a news conference about pregnancy counselling -- all before noon -- then fronted up for his regular parliamentary grilling in question time.

He batted off a question about a judicial inquiry into claims that Australian monopoly wheat exporter AWB had paid kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq under the United Nations' food-for-oil programme.

The centre-left Labor opposition has asked 110 questions in parliament about AWB kickback claims as it targets the government over what it knew about the payments.

''It is a world record in futility,'' Howard said, adding that parliament must await the outcome of the AWB kickbacks inquiry.

Labor described the anniversary as a sad day for Australia, chiding Howard's government for a decade of hubris and mis-management. Opposition treasury spokesman Wayne Swan derided the government as ''tired, lazy and indulgent''.

''Sadly for the Australian people, 10 years of the highest taxing government in our history has given all of those taxpayers a much bigger hangover,'' Swan said.

And later today about 500 unionists protested outside a ritzy Sydney hotel where Howard was attending another dinner in his honour, which up to 1,000 key business leaders have paid 1,000 Australian dollars a head to attend.

A strong police presence kept the noisy protesters well back from the venue of the dinner.

Howard is only the second Australian prime minister to notch up 10 years in office. Robert Menzies, his political hero who founded the Liberal Party, served more than 18 years as prime minister between 1939 and his retirement in 1966.


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