Trust in me, says Howard

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JOHN HOWARD, Australia's Prime Minister, launched his re-election campaign yesterday with a familiar call: "Trust me."

At a rally of party faithful in Sydney, Mr Howard, 59, appealed for a second term with a risky policy of tax reform, including an unpopular VAT-type consumption tax on almost everything, including food.

As the campaign enters its final fortnight, the Prime Minister has put his political future on the line with this policy.

Mr Howard led the conservative Liberal party with its coalition partner, the National party, to victory in 1996 with a 5.3 per cent swing that ended 13 years of Labor rule. The press talked of the "Howard Revolution," a new era of dry economic policies, and forecast he would lead Australia into the next millennium.

Only two and a half years into his first term, a gap has now opened between what Australians expected of him and what they have realised. It has a lot to do with Mr Howard's lacklustre leadership; but just as much with his inability to convince ordinary Australians, alarmed by the pace of social and economic change, that he has anything different to offer.

In his campaign television debate on 13 September with Kim Beazley, the Labor opposition leader, Mr Howard described his vision of Australia thus: "I want an Australia ... where, if you start with nothing and work your heart out, and do it well, you can earn something and keep a fair share of it."

Simple and non-visionary. But not the reality of life in Howard's Australia, according to Arthur Pappas, a Greek immigrant who bought the Howard family's garage in Earlwood, Sydney, about 14 years ago and now runs it with his son. He thinks the Prime Minister is still stuck mentally in Australia's "golden" years.

"As a small businessman I find it very difficult," Mr Pappas said. "In some strange, mysterious way we don't seem to make anything for ourselves. It all goes to the government, or insurance, or something else."

Mr Pappas is also uneasy about the latest influx of immigrants into Earlwood. "Lately we've been invaded, you could say, by Asians. I don't want to be known as racist because anything you say these days can be counted against you. But we worked from the moment we got off the ship. They go straight from the airport on to social security."

Pauline Hanson, the right-wing populist, has caused a political storm with her attacks on Asian immigration, multiculturalism and welfare spending on Aborigines. Mr Howard himself told the Australian Financial Review that one of the best things about his government was that it had lifted the "pall of political correctness" hanging over Australia. "People are less hidebound now about what they say."

If Mr Howard does lead the coalition to victory again on 3 October, it will be a tribute to his political doggedess. As Prime Minister, he has pushed through his core agenda of tax reform and privatisation. But he has failed to offer inspiring leadership on big social issues, such as native land title rights for Aborigines.

Mr Howard has always seemed more at home in an old Australia. He has promised a referendum next year on becoming a republic, but, if re-elected, he will not support it.

Opinion polls in the past fortnight have put the Labor opposition ahead, but it would be foolish to write off Mr Howard. Australia's economy is prosperous and stable, while those of most of its neighbours are in turmoil. Mr Howard is banking that this, more than anything, will get him a second term.