Poll rout forces Keating to quit

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PAUL KEATING resigned last night as leader of the Australian Labor Party after his government was swept from power in a landslide for the conservative Liberal-National coalition.

The rejection of Mr Keating, who had campaigned on a pledge to turn Australia into a republic, brought an end to 13 years of Labor rule, the longest in Australian history.

The new prime minister is John Howard, 56, leader of the Liberal Party, the senior partner in the coalition. The Liberals appeared last night to have won enough seats to govern Australia for the next three years in their own right after a national swing against Labor of 5 per cent. The coalition with the National Party is expected to have about 99 seats in the 148-seat House of Representatives in Canberra. Labor is likely to lose more than 30 seats, after holding a majority of 12 in the last parliament.

The swing against Labor was so decisive that while voters in Western Australia, in a time zone three hours behind the populous eastern states, were still casting their votes, analysts on national television were able to announce a coalition victory.

Mr Howard's victory does not end Australia's move towards republicanism, but could put it on hold. He strongly opposed Mr Keating's plan to conduct a plebiscite on a republic within a year of the election, followed by a referendum to change the constitution and replace the Queen with an Australian head of state before 2001, the centenary of Australia's federation.

As Liberals across the country celebrated, Labor mourned the end of an era. At least five ministers in Mr Keating's outgoing government lost their seats or were struggling to hold on to them last night.

Mr Keating conceded defeat from the stage at the Sports Club in Bankstown, the working-class suburb in western Sydney where he grew up and where five weeks ago he launched his campaign for a sixth term for Labor. He looked relaxed, even relieved, and embarked on a philosophical review of Labor's 13 years in power. "I think every government in the western world has had to deal with the problem of change and hasn't been popular as a result. Incumbency is also obviously a problem ... I wanted to deliver for all those who supported us, but obviously it wasn't to be." He added that he would not be re-contesting the party leadership.

Mr Howard appeared with his wife, Jeanette, and their three children at a hotel in central Sydney, where he paid tribute to Mr Keating as a "vigorous opponent". He said that he would take his "emphatic mandate" as an endorsement of the Liberal Party's philosophy. "We have not been elected to be a pale imitation of the government we're replacing," he declared.

During the campaign, the Liberal Party leader had spoken little of the "big picture" and concentrated on immediate benefits: tax cuts, health benefits and other giveaways.

The Labor Party president, Barry Jones, said this had proved more attractive to voters than Mr Keating's attempts to offer Australians a longer-term vision. "Howard appealed to the here and now."

Further report, page 3