Howard faces struggle to secure a second term

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AFTER TWO days of Australia's general election campaign, an opinion poll yesterday indicated that John Howard, the Prime Minister, would be struggling to win a fresh mandate for his conservative coalition government.

The first opinion poll published since the election was called on Sunday showed the Liberal-National coalition government and the opposition Labor Party neck-and-neck, with voters at 40 per cent support for each. Published in The Australian newspaper, the survey was run by Newspoll, considered the country's most reliable polling organisation.

For Mr Howard, the news was a chilling curtain-raiser to the five-week campaign for the election on 3 October. It showed his government's support had dropped four points since the last poll a fortnight ago. Labor's support remained fairly steady. The party that gained support in that fortnight was One Nation, the fringe group led by Pauline Hanson, whose calls to end Asian immigration and welfare programmes for Aborigines have made her Australia's most notorious political figure. One Nation's national support rose three points to 10 per cent. It gained support at the expense of the coalition parties rather than Labor.

Support for One Nation is widely seen as a protest vote against the two mainstream parties. Four former prime ministers on Monday signed an open letter calling on people to vote last, under the preferential system, for any candidate who supports racism. Malcolm Fraser, a former Liberal Party prime minister, with the former Labor leaders, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, said racism was an "unmitigated evil that would pitch Australian against Australian".

This has been a consistent pattern with the rise of One Nation, especially in the Queensland state election in June where it captured 23 per cent of the vote at the expense of the coalition parties. If this is repeated during the federal campaign, and is reflected in the final vote, Mr Howard could be staring at a political nightmare. Pollsters have not ruled out One Nation holding the balance of power in the Senate, the upper house in Canberra, or even the House of Representatives, the lower house where the government is formed.

Mr Howard won a burst of support in mid-August after he announced a sweeping plan to reform the tax system. The centrepiece was a VAT-type consumption tax on almost everything, including food, with lower taxes for those on higher incomes. But welfare groups and churches have campaigned against the decision to tax spending on food; voters seem to be going lukewarm on the Howard plan.

The Labor Party, led by Kim Beazley, has put forward a less radical tax reform plan that does not include a consumption tax. Sol Lebovic, the managing director of Newspoll, said yesterday that whoever wins the tax debate during the campaign will have the best chance of forming the next government.