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Australian PM Bets His Experience Will Keep Him in Office - 2004-10-04

John Howard is seeking a fourth term as Australia's prime minister. The head of the conservative Liberal Party is one of the country's most experienced politicians. But he faces a tough challenge from the Labor Party's Mark Latham.

Prime Minister John Howard first took the job in March 1996, when he led the conservative Coalition of Liberal and National Parties to a landslide victory against the Labor government.

But in launching his re-election campaign a month ago, Mr. Howard said he was taking nothing for granted in the elections on October 9.

"In the end, people will make a decision," Mr. Howard said. "Who is more likely to protect my personal and financial security? Who is more likely to effectively lead this country in this dangerous, difficult international climate?"

Born in 1939 to parents who ran a gasoline station, Mr. Howard trained as a solicitor.

He entered national politics in May 1974, winning the Parliament seat in Bennelong, in Sydney's northwest. He has held the seat ever since.

Early in political life it was clear Mr. Howard's ambition was to become prime minister.

He became known as the "boy treasurer" when he took the Treasury portfolio in 1977 and was elected the opposition leader in 1985, after the Labor Party took power.

But by 1989 many in his own party had written off Mr. Howard after the Coalition lost two more elections and he was replaced as its leader.

But few Australian politicians have shown the tenacity or determination of John Howard.

In early 1995 he rose from the political dead, regaining the Liberal leadership. A year later, he led the Coalition into government for the first time in 13 years.

John Howard has described himself as the most conservative leader the Liberals have ever had.

He has adopted the economic ideals associated with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - freeing up the labor market and reforming the tax system.

As prime minister, he has proven a tough leader, prepared to take unpopular decisions.

He has introduced an unpopular goods and services tax, and he has pushed through tough legislation on gun control, Aboriginal land ownership, industrial relations and illegal immigration.

At the start of this campaign, Mr. Howard put continued economic reform at the top of his agenda.

"We will be unveiling in the course of the campaign a number of policies that address some of the central issues that this country must deal with over the next decade," Mr. Howard said. "The demographic change, the balance between the environment and development, the need to further encourage and bring forward the entrepreneurial culture of this country."

But global security and Australia's role in the war against terror share top billing in Mr. Howard's vision for Australia.

In 2003, he stood alongside the United States and took Australia to war in Iraq, against overwhelming public opposition.

He has promised to keep Australia's 850 troops in Iraq as long as necessary. His Labor Party opponent, Mark Latham, wants to withdraw them by Christmas if Labor wins power.

Many political observers, including Robert Garran at the Australian National University, think Mr. Howard's allegiance to the United States comes at a cost to Australia's relationship with key Asian nations.

"Putting all our rhetorical weight into the U.S. alliance, being such strong supporters of a questionable war in Iraq, has also damaged our credibility in the eyes of many Asian countries," Mr. Garran said.

Opinion polls show Howard's greatest strength lies in his record on economic management.

His government has presided over the lowest interest rates in Australia for 30 years, and a period of sustained low unemployment.

After being in office for nearly nine years, Mr. Howard is a known quantity among voters.

His opponent Mr. Latham, at 43, is the youngest Labor leader in a century and has been in the job for less than a year.

But Mr. Howard's age is perhaps his biggest weakness. At 65, he is the age at which many Australians retire.

He once indicated he would hand over the prime minister's post once he turned 64.

It is possible he will resign before serving a full three-year term if he is re-elected, suggesting Treasurer Peter Costello could become prime minister before the next election.

History shows Australian voters are reluctant to change governments, and have done so only five times since World War II.

John Howard will be hoping his record on economic management and the relative inexperience of his political opponent will be enough to convince Australia's 13 million voters that now is not the time for change.