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Voters Air Concerns on Iraq, Health Ahead of Australian Election - 2004-10-04

Australians go to the polls on October 9 with the two major parties fighting a close race. Domestic issues - such as the economy, health care and education - top the voters' concerns, but Australia's role in the war on terror also may be decisive.

Australia's election campaign is a tight contest between the conservative Coalition led by Prime Minister John Howard and the left-of-center Labor opposition.

Mr. Howard, who is 65 years old, is seeking his fourth term as prime minister - he first took office in 1996. He leads the Liberal Party, which is allied with the National Party in the Coalition.

His main pitch to voters is his experience, his proven leadership in troubled times and his stewardship of a long period of economic growth.

Mr. Howard's rival is Mark Latham, who was elected Labor's leader 10 months ago.

Mr. Latham, 22 years younger than the prime minister, has a reputation as a "larrikin" - Australian slang for a rowdy, blunt, informal character.

Labor's campaign centers on issues such as creating a more equitable education system and making health care more affordable. That is a concern for 61-year-old Christos Juhanson, who lives in the southern city of Adelaide. "Health is very important. I need my Medicare. This year I was sick for the first time for 10 years and I was amazed at what my doctors' bills were. I personally think the Coalition will probably sneak back in. I think the young lad from the Labor Party is probably not quite there this time," he says.

Australia's decision to join the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq is a key issue among many voters, including army veteran Roger Burzacott. "I'm a little bit annoyed with John Howard in the way that he has presented the Iraq issue. And to have committed us to Iraq was just crazy. And I certainly, on that note, support the Labor Party's notion that we should be looking closer to home," he says.

His wife, Chris Burzacott, however, thinks the prime minister has represented Australia well, particularly during recent crises, such as the bombing last month in front of the Australian Embassy in Indonesia. "I think that Mr. Howard's leading. I think the Jakarta bombing, and I don't mean to be awful, has probably helped him. I think Mr. Howard does come over very well and he certainly puts all his facts in front of you," he says.

The election also is important for minor parties. Voters will elect the 150 members of the lower chamber of Parliament, the House of Representatives. They also choose candidates for the upper house, the Senate, where minor parties, such as the Greens and the Democrats, have a decisive say. The smaller parties tend to be liberal and concentrate on issues such as the environment, social justice and homosexual rights.

Earlier this year, new laws were passed in Australia banning same-sex marriage. The government initiated the legislation and Labor backed it.

That will force some voters, including this woman, Jo, and her partner, away from the major parties. "It really makes us feel like second-class citizens. It also incites hatred, you know, in the community saying gay couples aren't as worthy as other couples," she says.

Opinion polls show that the election result is still unpredictable.

So far, observers say the campaign has been unremarkable. Antony Green, an election analyst for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and other news media, says that traditionally Australian elections become more animated and focused in the days just before the vote.

"We have compulsory voting in Australia, which means there's a large number of people who do not pay attention until the last minute and do not make up their mind who they're going to vote for until the last minute," he says. "And these are people generally are the ones who don't pay attention and so there's no point in bombarding them at the start of the campaign, because they'll just turn off, so it all is left rather late."

Ahead of the election, the Coalition holds 83 seats in parliament, while Labor has 63. The magic number for either side to claim victory on October 9 is 76 seats.