Australians will go to the polls on November 24. The country's conservative Prime Minister John Howard is campaigning for re-election on the back of a strong economy and a promise of a decisive hand on matters of national security. His rival - Labor leader Kevin Rudd - has said Australians no longer trust Mr. Howard. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard is busy campaigning as he seeks a fifth term in office.
He hopes his economic record will be enough to secure victory.
Mr Howard first won power in 1996 and has presided over a period of unprecedented prosperity.
Among a raft of election pledges, the Prime Minister has promised multi-billion dollar tax cuts.
"The Treasurer and I announced a bold plan for the future growth, higher productivity and employment growth of this country," he said. "Our tax plan is not just about putting extra dollars in the pockets of middle Australia, but it's very much about further growth of the Australian economy, it's about providing additional incentives for people to work, it's about lifting productivity, it's about continuing our growth and opportunity society."
John Howard's challenger is Kevin Rudd, the 50-year-old leader of the left-of-center Labor opposition.
Rudd is widely tipped to beat his older conservative rival, who is 68.
The Labor leader has promised to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq if he wins office but has stressed that he would be committed to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, where Australian forces are also based.
Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat, rejects government claims that he is too inexperienced to lead the country.
"Can I say, our team is a first class team and going into this election campaign, I have three former military officers from the Australian Defense Force running as our candidates in key seats," he said. "I've got four mayors and deputy mayors. I have three local councilors, I have small business operators. And on my front bench now I have barristers, solicitors, schoolteachers, I have people who are economists, John Howard tells voters he will sustain the country's prosperity and growth.
Mr. Howard has been accused by his opponent Kevin Rudd of running a nasty campaign.
Kevin Rudd is way ahead in the opinion polls and has been for many months.
Election Analyst, Antony Green, warns that the mood among voters can change quickly.
"The thing that I would say is, let's see if there is a narrowing in the lead. There's no guarantee that will happen, it doesn't always happen. Sometimes it has, sometimes it hasn't," he said. "But when people keep referring to the leadership, the one thing I'd say is, that to me, for months now the preferred Prime Minister poll has been reflecting exactly the same numbers as the preferred party poll. This year, Kevin Rudd does have a terrific rating, John Howard has a reasonable rating for someone who's been there a long time, [[COULD CUT: but then John Howard's rarely had terrific ratings as Prime Minister except for in the period after 2001.]]"
Another seasoned election observer, Martin O'Shannessy, who heads the Newspoll group, believes the Howard government, which is a coalition of two right-wing parties, has a very tough fight on its hands.
"Certainly there's a lot of ground to be gained, that needs to be gained if the Coalition is to retain Government, and it would be hard to do that in a very short time. I think that's fairly obvious," he said.
The economy will be the dominant theme of the election campaign. Issues surrounding national security and industrial reforms will also feature strongly along with climate change and reconciliation with Australia's Aborigines.
Campaigners will also be looking at how each side plans to help the disadvantaged.
The Australian economy may well be roaring along but many people are being left behind.
Anne Hampshire from charity Mission Australia says many Australians endure difficulties.
"Many of the clients that we're working with are experiencing disadvantage on numbers of fronts," she said. "So things like decent meal, decent housing, access to dental, there's a really compounding picture here for some Australians who we're working with on a daily basis."
The government's promise of $30 billion worth of tax cuts met with a mixed response at a shopping center in Sydney.
"A cheap attempt to buy the electorate. Why was it released the day, or almost the day after the election was announced? Why wasn't the news released to us a long time ago?" said one man.
"Money spent on hospitals, definitely because our hospitals are a disgrace," another man said.
"Education, particularly public education, and universities are pretty screaming for funding as well," a woman said.
"I'd far rather see it go into hospitals and education rather than what's going to mean maybe $30 or $40 in the pocket of each person a fortnight in three years' time," said another man.
The election takes place on Saturday November 24. Voting in Australia is compulsory.
The campaign gives Australians a clear choice - the experience of John Howard or the youthful enthusiasm of Kevin Rudd.