Bid for Australia's top post may turn on Bush, Iraq war

The headlines here are warning that it could be "Howard's Last Stand."

Struggling with tepid election-year approval ratings and dogged by bad publicity over the Iraq war, third-term Australian Prime Minister John Howard is fighting for his political life. He has blitzed the media with new policy announcements, from medicare to the environment. But the core of his campaign strategy remains the same: promoting a strong antiterror alliance with the United States.

It's a risky strategy. As one of Bush's staunchest foreign allies, Mr. Howard may share the fate of Spain's former President Jose Maria Aznar, who joined forces with the US to oust Saddam Hussein, only to be routed in March elections after terrorists bombed trains in Madrid.

Howard and his Liberal Party face a strong challenge from Labor's Mark Latham, who has promised to bring the troops home by Christmas, turning the vote into a referendum on the war and pressuring Howard to show the upside of the close US relationship.

"Howard wants to emphasize the strategic alliance with the United States and he will be depending on his voters to have the capacity to differentiate that from the Iraq war," says Hugh White, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. However, if "popular support for the alliance is eroding on the basis of the war, then [Howard's] proximity to Bush will do him harm," White adds.

Australians are showing a growing frustration with events in Iraq, particularly the Abu Ghraib prison photos and the recent decapitation of foreign nationals in the country.

A poll by the Sydney Morning Herald late last month suggests that 63 percent of voters oppose the war in Iraq, as compared with 51 percent last year.

But Howard is not about to pull out of the war. In fact, Canberra is sending 53 more troops to help train the new Iraqi Army. "There is a job to be done in Iraq. I am more determined than ever that Australia should stay the distance," he told the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne recently.

For their part, senior members of the US government attacked Mark Latham's populist pledge to have the troops home this year, suggesting that it might pose a threat to the 53-year-old alliance between the two countries.

Even the US ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer, joined the chorus when he told a joint Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Trade Committee hearing in Canberra recently: "The stakes are too high, the risks too great for us to be comfortable in going our separate ways."

Buoyed by support from the other side of the world, Howard, too, went on the attack in a major policy speech this month.

"I believe the current leader of the opposition has embarked on a course that would damage our alliance with the US," the prime minister said.

It may have got him a nod of approval from President Bush, but it did little to boost his party's ratings. A recent Newspoll showed Labor beating the government 52 percent to 48 percent in the two-party preferred vote.

Latham has a popular image as a youthful family man focused on domestic quality-of-life issues such as education, the environment, and healthcare.

"Howard, at 65, can't really beat the fresh youthfulness of Latham, but he can challenge him on matters of national security, the economy, a tough line on immigration and border control - all of which the prime minister is experienced in, but Labor is not," says John Warhurst, lecturer in politics at the Australian National University in Canberra.

In order to win the elections, the government needs to win a majority of lower house seats - not necessarily a majority of votes.

"The government is not trying to please everybody and it does not need to," wrote Shaun Carney in The Age newspaper. He noted that it was possible for the government to be reelected with as little as 48 percent of the votes.

But the opposition Labor Party got another boost with the recent induction of the former front man for the band Midnight Oil into a safe Labor seat in Sydney.

A well-known conservationist, Peter Garrett is expected to bring young Green voters to Labor.

Howard reacted with stinging criticism to the surprise move: "You don't want extreme Green attitudes because extreme Green attitudes are anti-investment and antijobs," he told reporters. "It's not much good having a pristine environment in a bankrupt country."

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