Australian PM wins third term in 'time of crisis'

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The Independent Online

John Howard, written off by his critics as a mediocre politician without vision or charisma, is having the last laugh after winning his third term as the Australian Prime Minister and earning himself a place in the history books.

Mr Howard's right-wing coalition was returned to power with an increased majority after he promised voters strong leadership at a time of global crisis and pledged to "protect" the nation's borders against asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Afghanistan.

By the time he leaves office, he will have served Australia as Prime Minister longer than anyone except Robert Menzies, his postwar idol who was premier for 17 years.

Mr Howard once described himself as "Lazarus with a triple bypass", and the election triumph marked an extraordinary comeback for a man whose government was languishing 14 points behind the Labour opposition earlier this year. That was before a Norwegian ship, theTampa, sailed over the horizon with its cargo of 433 Afghan asylum-seekers. Mr Howard turned away the Tampa and drew a line in the sand; henceforth, no more uninvited refugees would be allowed to land on Australian shores. Voters nostalgic for the White Australia policy – abolished only in 1970 – returned in droves.

The election victory was the crowning moment of a long career that has seen the 62-year-old Sydneysider twice rejected by his own party. A minister in Malcom Fraser's government in the 1970s, Mr Howard was deposed as Liberal Party leader in 1989 and mounted an unsuccessful challenge for the job four years later.

He refused to give up, regained the leadership in 1995 and led the coalition of Liberals and the rural-based National Party to power the following year and again in 1998. For Mr Howard, the third win is a personal vindication and a snub to Australia's intellectual élites. They have long derided him as old-fashioned and out of touch, ill-suited to lead a young, forward-looking country down a path of diversity and social change. He is a former suburban solicitor who lived with his mother until he married at 32.

His critics say Australia has gone backwards since the days of Mr Howard's Labour predecessor, Paul Keating, who paved the way for Aboriginal land rights, championed a republic and forged close ties with Asian neighbours.

Mr Howard has resisted calls to apologise to Aborigines for past injustices, helped to engineer the defeat of a republican referendum and gave priority to relations with Europe and America.

But the voters of Middle Australia relate to him more readily than they did to the clever and cultured Mr Keating. "He has turned being ordinary into a success story," one columnist observed before the election. Another wrote: "Not for him the high-flown imagery, the fancy ideas. Plain man's fare is more than enough. He is the political equivalent of the lamb roast."

Mr Howard lists his proudest achievements as the introduction of gun-control laws after a massacre in Tasmania and Australia's leadership of the multinational force that restored order in East Timor after the vote for independence in 1999.

His critics overlook his shrewd political instincts and his talent for tapping into the mood of an innately conservative electorate. He took his stand against boat people with impeccable timing.

One commentator who watched the launch of the Liberal election campaign wrote: "Wherever the Tampa tactics lead Australia in the years to come, those of us in the City Recital Hall yesterday will remember the sight and sound of a white, prosperous audience baying for border protection.

"They know it's the winning ticket and John Howard has found it for them. He is a genius of sorts: he looks this country in the face and sees us not as we wish we were, not as one day we might be, but exactly as we are."

Mr Howard has said he will reconsider his political future when he turns 64 in July 2003, with his Treasurer, Peter Costello,waiting in the wings as his anointed heir apparent.