Australian PM puts his neck on the line and calls an election

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The Independent Online

After months of phoney electioneering and a fruitless wait for the polls to turn in his favour, the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, called an election for November 24, when he will seek a fifth term for himself and his right-wing coalition government.

The announcement was welcomed by the Labour Party leader, Kevin Rudd, who has been itching for the opportunity to try to end 11 years of conservative rule. Mr Rudd said yesterday that he was offering Australian voters "new leadership" to replace "a government that's lost touch and ... gone stale".

Since Mr Rudd, a former diplomat and committed Christian, took over as opposition leader late last year, Labour – which had struggled under his predecessors – has maintained a consistently healthy lead over the Liberal-National Party Coalition. A poll yesterday put Labour 18 points ahead.

Mr Rudd's personal ratings remain high despite some potentially damaging revelations, such as his visit to a New York strip club some years ago and the fact he has undergone heart surgery.

Mr Howard, 68, who has always managed to bounce back in the past, has been so demoralised by the polls that he recently asked cabinet colleagues whether he ought to resign. He decided to stay on, but – after years of refusing to name a retirement date – pledged to step down during the next parliamentary term if re-elected, handing over power to his younger Treasurer, Peter Costello.

Last week Mr Howard startled voters by promising a referendum to incorporate a formal recognition of Aboriginal history, culture and heritage into the Australian constitution. The Prime Minister, who has always rejected the need for symbolic action to further black-white reconciliation, claiming that it reinforces a "black armband" view of history, admitted that he may been mistaken.

Some commentators dismissed the U-turn as a cynical pre-election move, with one calling it a "deathbed conversion." Others suggested Mr Howard, the country's second-longest serving leader, is looking to his political legacy and does not want to be remembered as the prime minister who did nothing to help indigenous Australians.

Mr Rudd, 50, whose wife, Therese Rein, is a self-made millionaire businesswoman, has pledged to sign the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq. But he has stressed the importance of maintaining Australia's close relationship with the US.

Apart from bread and butter issues such as health and education, unpopular industrial relations reforms will loom large in the six-week campaign. So will climate change. Mr Howard, a long-time sceptic on global warming, has recently acknowledged the need for robust action.

While Mr Howard has presided over a strong economy, high interest rates and rising house prices are squeezing many Australians. He is urging voters to stick with a leader whom they can trust to steer the economy, as well as on national security. "Love me or loathe me, the Australian people know where I stand on the major issues of importance to their future," he said.

While the polls predict a landslide victory for Labour, Mr Rudd warned against complacency. Labour needs another 16 seats in order to win government. "To win this election, we will have to make history," Mr Rudd said. "We have only won twice from opposition since World War Two. I believe this is going to be the fight of our lives."

While policies will be bitterly fought over, Mr Rudd's best asset may be the national mood for political change. By comparison with Mr Howard, he seems young and fresh. Unlike his predecessor, Mark Latham, who lost the 2004 election for Labour, he is also seen as a safe pair of hands. He is a cautious person and an economic conservative.

Mr Howard, who has had many opportunities to retire gracefully, and at a time of his own choosing, now faces the prospect of losing not only the election, but his own seat. Only once before, in 1929, has that happened to a prime minister.

The contenders

John Howard

A former suburban lawyer whose most influential political adviser is said to be his wife, Jeanette, Mr Howard embodies Middle Australia's desire to be prosperous and secure – and win the cricket (or rugby, or football). Sometimes derided for being stuck in the 1950s of his youth, he has a surprising capacity to re-invent himself. He lives in a palatial house overlooking Sydney Harbour, eschewing the prime ministerial residence in Canberra. Mr Howard's ultimate undoing may be the hubris of a highly successful leader who loved power too much to let it go.

Kevin Rudd

With his spectacles, boyish smile and mop of blonde hair, Mr Rudd is ready fodder for political satirists. One Australian cartoonist likes to draw him as Tintin. His nicknames include 'Harry Potter' and 'the Milky Bar Kid'. A former diplomat, he welcomed Chinese President Hu Jintao to last month's Apec summit in Sydney in fluent Mandarin, as Mr Howard looked on sourly. While some poke fun at him for being bookish and nerdy, Mr Rudd has natural charm, as well as gravitas. He is unashamed about his Christian beliefs and family values.