Web porn scandal adds relish to Australia's bizarre election trail campaign adds new bizarre note

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The Independent Online
AUSTRALIA'S political leaders are not normally associated with sex and pornogarphy. But both have become burning issues in the run-up to the country's general election on 3 October.

As campaigning enters its second week, the opposition Labor Party has gone into damage control while federal police investigate how the ruling Liberal Party's official Internet site was allegedly sabotaged and linked to hard-core pornographic sites.

Soon after Prime Minister John Howard called an early election last week, visitors to his party's website were shocked by what they found as they searched for mundane information like policy statements.

They saw the party leader described as "The Dishonourable John Howard, prime minister for pain, suffering and inequity". His Finance Minister was referred to as "Peter (w----er) Costello, minister for the rich, stomping the poor and wrecking the economy". Hits on other Liberal Party items on the official web page were linked to a pornography site in Asia.

Kim Beazley, the Labor opposition leader, was forced to sack two junior workers in his campaign office over the affair, although both denied tampering with the Liberals' site. One was a volunteer, the other a staff member, who admitted sending e-mails to other Labor campaign workers on how they could hack into the website. The party workers were told: "If you like, you can fiddle with their pages. Save the changes, and there's no site security at all."

It was the last thing Mr Beazley needed, after he had opened his election campaign by taking the high moral ground, eschewing the politics of dirty tricks and declaring that Australians were "just sick of politicians ripping each other to pieces". The Labor leader made an embarrassed apology, but the Liberals are unlikely to let the "web porn" affair rest.

It was just one more incident in what is shaping up to be Australia's most bizarre and closely fought election campaign in years. More than ever, it will be dominated by the party leaders: Mr Howard, the squeaky- clean Prime Minister who wants to take Australia back to the 1950s; and Mr Beazley, the jovial former Rhodes scholar and friend of Tony Blair, who faces the Herculean task of winning an extra 27 seats for Labor, on top of the 48 it holds, to get his party back into power in Canberra.

Looming over the campaign is a third figure. Pauline Hanson, the leader of the right-wing One Nation party, is hoping to inflict widespread national electoral havoc just as she did in the Queensland state election three months ago. There she captured almost a quarter of the vote with her simplistic gospel of economic nationalism, xenophobia and racial bigotry.

Australia's political landscape has changed dramatically since the last election in 1996, when voters ended 13 years of Labor Party rule under Paul Keating. Under Mr Howard's conservative Liberal-National coalition, Australia has become a more sombre, inward-looking country. Gone from public debate are adventurous issues such as republicanism, replaced by spending cuts and tax reform.

The country has also become more divided, as the Hansonites exploit a perceived backlash among suburban and outback "battlers" against the so-called political correctness of the Keating era and its concern with multiculturalism, Aboriginal welfare and land rights.

Mr Howard, a monarchist who sympathises with Mrs Hanson's attacks on political correctness, has done little to heal these divisions. He has called the election six months early because he believes Australians will baulk at ditching his government at a time of global financial turmoil, particularly in Asia to which the Australian economy is closely tied.

The government received a boost last week when official figures showed the economy growing at a healthy 3.9 per cent, leading Mr Howard to boast that Australia was the "economic strongman of Asia".

But he faces other problems, not least his lacklustre leadership, which has helped to drive down the government's poll rating to about 40 per cent. That is neck-and-neck with Labor, only two and a half years after the coalition won a record parliamentary majority.

Pauline Hanson remains the wild card of the campaign, with policies that grow more outlandish by the day. On Wednesday, she endorsed a grandiose scheme to divert the big coastal rivers inland to "drought proof" the Outback. The following day, she unveiled a plan to tax rich and poor alike at a flat rate of 2 per cent, a proposal described as a "happy tax" by one senior supporter. "Goodnight, world" was the response of the Australian Financial Review.

Some believe that rural voters, Ms Hanson's main support base, are becoming wary that her anti-Asian rhetoric is damaging markets for their products. But polls have put her support as high as 8 per cent, which could in certain circumstances give One Nation the balance of power in the Senate.

As for Mr Beazley, he is doing his best to distance himself from the Labor image of the Keating era and win back traditional Labor voters who deserted to the coalition at the last election. But he is already having a tough time putting across a convincing image.

Last week, the Daily Telegraph, a Sydney-based tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, echoed Denis Healey's jibe at Geoffrey Howe many years ago, declaring that the opposition leader's soft campaigning style against Mr Howard was "like being savaged by a dead sheep". Has Mr Murdoch spoken, and is this how his newspapers will play it until the election? Time will tell.

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