The Big Question: Are Australian voters finally about to turn away from John Howard?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

An election in Australia is due before the end of the year, and John Howard's 11-year stint as Prime Minister looks like coming to an end. Last December the Opposition Labour Party chose a new leader, Kevin Rudd, and just about every poll since has forecast victory for him over Mr Howard's right-wing Liberal/National Party coalition. A Newspoll survey last week predicted that Labour will win 55 per cent of votes under Australia's complicated "preferential" electoral system.

What's so good about Kevin Rudd?

Neither a brilliant political operator nor a man of great charisma, Mr Rudd is seen as a solid, respectable alternative to Mr Howard. A former diplomat and foreign affairs spokesman, Mr Rudd is brainy, moderate and quietly energetic. Saint Kevin, as he is sometimes dubbed, is also a committed Christian and social conservative, with his main flaw, in voters' eyes, probably being his goody two-shoes image. Recent revelations that Mr Rudd visited a lap-dancing club in New York in 2003 may therefore boost rather than undermine his ratings. He is a fresh face and, at 49, a generation younger than Mr Howard, at a time when Australians appear keen for change.

So is it time Howard handed over to a younger man?

That's a sore point for Peter Costello, the long-time Australian Treasurer and Deputy Leader, who was anointed Howard's successor years ago but is still waiting in the wings, increasingly bitter and frustrated. Mr Costello, 50, claims that Mr Howard promised him in 2004 that, if the Coalition was elected, he would step aside after a term and a half; Mr Howard, now nearing the end of his fourth term, denies such a deal was ever struck. The relationship between Prime Minister and Treasurer – not unlike that of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, before Mr Blair finally ceded the top job – is known to be strained, and has not been improved by critical interviews that Mr Costello gave to the authors of a recently published Howard biography. The biography also revealed that Mr Costello and his wife, Tanya, have never once, in 11 years, been invited to a private dinner at Mr Howard's official residence with him and his wife, Janette.

Does Howard want to go on and on?

He certainly does. In an interview in 2001, he suggested that he might retire in July 2004, when he turned 64. When that birthday approached, Mr Howard announced that he would be staying on, at the wishes of his own Liberal Party. Before the last election in 2004, he refused to commit himself to serving a full term; now – just turned 68 and, as of last Saturday, a grandfather – he is planning to fight a fifth election and vowing to continue as party leader until he is 70. Already Australia's second-longest-serving prime minister, he may be hoping to close the gap with his hero, Robert Menzies, who governed for 17 years, eventually retiring in 1966.

Isn't he seen as a safe pair of hands?

While the Australian economy has boomed under Mr Howard, the "aspirant" voters who once placed their trust in him are hurting. This month the Reserve Bank raised interest rates to 6.5 per cent, their highest level in a decade. It was the fifth successive rise since the 2004 election, which Mr Howard won after promising to keep rates low. Household debt is now at record levels, and housing affordability at its lowest point for 18 years. The government is also struggling to contain the fallout from unpopular industrial relations reforms, and has been wrongfooted by Labour on the issue of global warming, with Mr Howard forced to abandon his long-held position as a sceptic. His efforts to regain the initiative by, for instance, declaring child abuse in Aboriginal communities a "national emergency", have been greeted with cynicism by some observers, who point out that the emergency has existed for the past decade, at least.

What about Iraq and the 'War on Terror'?

Mr Howard has been one of George Bush's staunchest allies, sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, and introducing tough anti-terrorist laws at home. But while the Iraq war has caused less controversy here than in Britain or the US, and Australia has managed to avoid military casualties, many voters question the wisdom of troops staying on. Moreover, with Tony Blair gone, and Mr Bush on his way out, there is a sense that Mr Howard, the third member of the pro-Iraq war triumvirate, is not far behind them. At home, the recent detention for three weeks on flimsy evidence of an Indian-born doctor, Mohammed Haneef, suspected of involvement in the foiled bomb attacks in London and Glasgow, was seen as a monumental bungle on the part of the government and anti-terrorist police.

Can Howard save his political skin?

The Prime Minister's international profile will rise next week when he hosts the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Sydney, attended by 21 world leaders including President Bush, the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and the Chinese President, Hu Jintao. But the event will not endear him to Sydneysiders, who are about to see their laid-back city transformed into a high-security fortress surrounded by a 9ft-high concrete fence. Between now and the election, Mr Howard will be seeking to remind voters about the inexperience of Mr Rudd's team, only two of whom have served as ministers in past governments, and also crossing his fingers; Labour still needs to win 16 seats to secure victory. If all else fails, Mr Howard could rewrite history; his departmental staff, alongside civil servants in the Defence Department, were caught out last week making thousands of changes to Wikipedia, removing details unfavourable to the government.

Does Howard have a future as an MP?

Quite possibly not. As a result of boundary changes last year, Mr Howard's Sydney electorate of Bennelong, which he has held for 33 years, is now considered a marginal seat. To make matters worse, he faces a challenge from a popular and highly respected former television journalist, Maxine McKew, who left the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year and subsequently went to work for Kevin Rudd. Some opinion polls suggest that Ms McKew, regarded as one of Labour's star recruits, is a real threat to Mr Howard, who could become the first Australian prime minister to lose his seat since Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929. If that happens, he will no doubt be wishing that he had handed over power to Peter Costello.

So is John Howard a busted flush?

Yes...

* Australian voters don't trust John Howard any more, not even on the economy

* After four terms in office, Howard has lost touch with the views of ordinary Australians

* It's time for a change, and Howard, who is approaching 70, is seen as yesterday's man

No...

* Voters are still not sure what Kevin Rudd's Labour Party actually stands for

* Mr Howard is one of Australia's great political survivors – not for nothing was he once called 'Lazarus with a triple bypass'

* He still has three months in which to call an election, and could yet find the right issue to tip himself over the line

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