Howard surfs home on a wave of xenophobia

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A strategically played race card and a fortuitous international crisis combined to give John Howard a third term as Australian Prime Minister last night, setting the country on course for three more years of right-wing government.

Mr Howard, written off as a spent force only a few months ago, was returned to office with an increased majority after an election campaign dominated by controversy over asylum seekers and fought in the shadow of the war in Afghanistan.

"To all of my fellow Australians, I feel an enormous sense of honour and privilege at what has been given me tonight. I won't let you down," he said to loud applause from supporters of his conservative Liberal Party gathered in a central Sydney hotel.

Mr Howard rode to victory on a wave of xenophobia, his political fortunes restored by a tough new policy of preventing refugees from landing on Australian shores. The policy, which included sending asylum seekers to remote Pacific islands for processing, provoked international outrage but was supported by 70 per cent of people at home.

Events overseas, meanwhile, made voters unlikely to risk a change of government.

Kim Beazley, the Labor leader, conceding defeat in his home city of Perth, said it had been "an extraordinarily difficult thing to conduct an election campaign against a background of ... war and in circumstances where people feel a great sense of insecurity". A swing of more than three per cent to Mr Howard's coalition of Liberals and the rural based National Party, means that reconciliation with the nation's Aborigines is off the agenda for the foreseeable future, as is the question of an Australian republic.

Mr Howard is a staunch monarchist who helped engineer the defeat of a referendum two years ago on whether Australia should dispense with the Queen as head of state. He has steadfastly refused to apologise to Aborigines for past injustices including the practice – abandoned only in the early 1970s – of removing black children from their families.

On the international scene, he is expected to make relations with the US and Europe a priority, rather than seek closer ties with Asian neighbours. His hard line on refugees, which began with his barring entry to the Afghans rescued by the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa in August, was credited with neutralising Pauline Hanson's anti-immigration One Nation Party. The party did not win a single seat in the lower house of parliament, and Mrs Hanson appeared unlikely to succeed in her ambition to be elected to the Senate.

Mr Beazley, who has resigned as party leader, is thought to have alienated some traditional Labor voters by backing the government on asylum seekers. With the electorate disillusioned by both main parties, the Greens doubled their share of the vote to nearly five per cent.

Australia has contributed 1,550 defence personnel to the military action in Afghanistan, and Mr Howard has called on voters to display "that Australian spirit, that mateship that allows us to pull together in times of adversity and challenge". Australian Electoral Commission figures indicated yesterday that the coalition had won 80 seats in the 150-seat lower house. Labor had 68.

But while the crackdown on asylum seekers has played a significant role in the election, it does not appear to be having the desired effect. Nearly 2,000 boat people tried to reach Australia in September and October – a four-fold rise on the same period last year.