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Fury at bias of TV chief

AS AUSTRALIA'S election campaign entered its last two days, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was at the centre of a political storm yesterday. Staff were calling for the resignation of its chairman, Donald McDonald, after he intervened in the campaign by praising John Howard, the Prime Minister.

Mr McDonald was confronted at a board meeting yesterday over his generous praise of Mr Howard when he introduced him at a campaign lunch in Sydney last week attended by some of the ruling conservative Liberal Party's staunchest supporters. Among them was Kerry Packer, the media tycoon, who sat at Mr Howard's table.

Mr Packer declared afterwards that "of course" Mr Howard deserved another term after the election on Saturday, and that Kim Beazley, the Labor opposition leader, needed "another few years in the wilderness".

When he stood at the podium and introduced Mr Howard to the audience, many of whom contributed to the Liberal Party's campaign coffers, Mr McDonald described him as "entirely decent", "without malice", "a proud man possessed of deep humility", then called amid applause for the guests to "celebrate John Howard".

Mr McDonald's action was unprecedented for a chairman of the ABC, the country's main public broadcasting organisation, whose charter of political independence mirrors that of the BBC. Its timing was remarkable: in the heat of an election campaign in which Mr Howard himself has accused the ABC of showing bias towards the opposition Labor Party in its coverage.

Uproar followed Mr McDonald's remarks. Leading newspapers rebuked him, while ABC staff called for him to stand down. Mr McDonald is a friend of Mr Howard, who appointed him. He appeared shocked by the outcry and maintained he was merely expressing personal warmth for an old friend. He refused to quit at yesterday's board meeting where Kirsten Garrett, a staff-elected board member, put the staff's demands to him.

She wrote in The Australian: "What has happened during the past few weeks is an attempt to paint the ABC into a phoney party-political corner. Not only is this patently wrong. It is impossible."

Mr McDonald's apparent failure to distinguish between his friendship with Mr Howard and his role as ABC chairman has spawned much speculation over the motives for his intervention. Since it came to power in 1996, Mr Howard's government has cut the ABC's budget by one-tenth and its staff by one-fifth. Radio Australia, its overseas service, has been starved into a skeleton existence.

In some respects, Mr McDonald's remarks undermined the Prime Minister's charge of Labor bias at the ABC. But, if Mr Howard wins on Saturday, ABC staff are bracing themselves for more cuts.

No one is taking Mr Howard's re-election for granted, even though Labor will have to win at least 27 more seats to form a majority in the 148- seat House of Representatives. The polls indicate the result will be decided, finally, by the distribution of second votes from minor parties under Australia's preferential system.

In the past few days, the coalition leaders have come under fire over their remarks about aborigines. On Monday, Tim Fischer, the Deputy Prime Minister, and leader of the National Party, accused the two main aboriginal land councils in the Northern Territory of "blood-sucking" public funds.

His choice of words was seen as a last attempt to pander to voters for One Nation, the racially bigoted party led by Pauline Hanson, who wants to halt spending on aborigines.