Howard returns to lead Liberals

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The Independent Online
Less than two years after winning the so-called "unwinnable" general election, Paul Keating, Australia's Labor Prime Minister, is confronted by a third leader of the opposition today. The Liberal Party yesterday elected John Howard, a veteran MP whose dry, conservative views on republicanism, Asian immigration and the economy will be grist to the Keating mill.

With Mr Keating looking towards a sixth term at next year's general election, Mr Howard's installation is a sign of the desperation among conservative Liberals. To lose, means stretching their time in opposition to16 years, if not prompting the demise ofthe party itself.

The party that ruled for almost a quarter of a century after the Second World War marked (celebrated was hardly the word) the 50th anniversary of its founding late last year in a state of bitter turmoil.

Since Labor came to power 12 years ago, the Liberals have lost five elections and installed and dumped as many leaders. Alexander Downer, 43, the latest, resigned last Thursday after eight months, the shortest term on record.

His political immaturity, weak leadership and disastrous opinion poll results have raised John Howard from a political graveyard. Among the leaders the Liberals ditched in the Eighties, he then said his chances of heading the party again were as good as those of "Lazarus with a triple by-pass operation".

But the political ground has shifted, particularly on two issues where he is vulnerable.

In 1988, he called for a "slow down" in Asian immigration in the interest of "social cohesion" - remarks that have dogged him since. Only earlier this month did he withdraw them, admitting he was mistaken.

And, as the republican debate gathered steam, he has remained Australia's most outspoken constitutional monarchist.