Australian premier wins fourth term

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John Howard's Don't Mention the War strategy paid dividends this week as he sailed decisively to a historic fourth term as Prime Minister in a victory guaranteeing that Australian troops will stay in Iraq indefinitely.

The Howard-led coalition of Liberals and the rural-based National Party surprised many pundits by significantly increasing its parliamentary majority. With over 70 per cent of the vote counted, Australian Electoral Commission figures indicated that the coalition had won 85 seats in the 150-seat lower house, while Labor had 59.

The question now is when Mr Howard, 65, will retire. In two months he will become the second longest-serving Prime Minister in Australian history. Some believe he will step down shortly afterwards.

Mr Howard, one of President George Bush's closest allies during last year's invasion of Iraq, refused to apologise for going to war after this week's damning weapons report from the White House.

"I am truly humbled by this extraordinary expression of confidence in the leadership of this great nation by the coalition," Mr Howard told a jubilant crowd of conservative supporters at a central Sydney hotel. Describing Australia as "a beacon of democracy, of tolerance, of hope and of achievement all around the world", he said that yesterday's Afghanistan election happened because "a number of countries, including Australia, were prepared to take a stand for democracy and to take a stand against terrorism".

The Labor leader, Mark Latham, conceded defeat in his home electorate of south-west Sydney with the words: "I will see you again." He avoided mentioning that Labor's performance had been worse than in the controversial 2001 election, which was dominated by Mr Howard's policy of forcing asylum-seekers to be processed on remote Pacific islands.

This time, moral issues took a back seat, with both leaders making frenzied funding promises. Voter disillusionment with the major parties resulted in a strong showing for the Greens, now claiming to be Australia's third political force.

Mr Howard's win means that Australia's 900 troops will remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Mr Latham had pledged to have them home by Christmas. The question of an Australian republic, too, will remain firmly off the agenda.

Mr Howard, a staunch monarchist, drew inspiration from Margaret Thatcher, who once advised him never to apologise. He has steadfastly refused to say sorry for past injustices, such as the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families.