Howard has no regrets on Iraq as poll battle goes down to wire

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The Independent Online

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, yesterday called on voters to trust him and refused to express regret over the Iraq war ahead of tomorrow's general election.

Faced with the damning weapons report from the White House, Mr Howard, who was one of President George Bush's closest allies during the campaign, dug his heels in and said: "I am not in any way apologetic about the fact that we were involved in a campaign that removed Saddam Hussein."

Despite accusations from Mark Latham, the opposition leader, that Mr Howard had made Australia "less safe" by his "shocking decision" the Iraq issue has failed to resonate with voters. The Labour leader has promised, if elected, to bring Australian troops home by Christmas.

Instead, both leaders have indulged in a bonanza of spending promises over health and education in an attempt to win the hearts of the undecideds - an estimated 18 percent of the electorate. Labour's initial lead in the polls has been eroded - political pundits point to Australians' aversion to change. The man seeking to provoke that change is derided in television sketch shows by rivals as a "L-plate beginner with no experience".

Mr Latham, Labour's new front man, is playing up to his image as a "classic Aussie bloke, a battler with a great big mortgage, the obligatory devoted wife, and two young children". He appeared to be a man who pulled no punches, even when stories emerged of an altercation with a taxi driver in the mid-1980s which resulted in the driver fracturing his arm. No charges were laid, although the driver maintains that Mr Latham still owes him the A$35 (£14) fare. Labour tacticians are suggesting that age is against Mr Howard, who celebrated his 65th birthday earlier this year.

Australia is one of the few countries where voting is compulsory; turnout is an average of 95 per cent. The system was introduced after the First World War and voters are fined if they fail to cast their vote.