Howard set for close win in Australia

ROBERT MILLIKEN

Sydney

Buoyed by opinion polls which suggest he will be Prime Minister after today's general election, John Howard, leader of the Liberal Party, embarked on a barrage of radio and television interviews yesterday to convince swinging voters in critical seats to end the 13-year era of Labor government.

As his strategists delivered the results of private party polls, which predicted that the conservative Liberals and their junior coalition partners, the National Party, would pick up more than the seven seats they need to topple Labor, Mr Howard displayed the solemn air of a leader who sensed that the elusive prize which he has pursued for 22 years in politics was finally within his grasp.

For his part, Paul Keating,fighting to win an unprecedented sixth term for Labor, ended his campaign the way he began it, as the underdog. Not for him the radio and television studios of Sydney, from where Mr Howard disseminated his message that Labor had left Australia with record foreign debt and youth unemployment.

The Prime Minister was in Tasmania yesterday, after spending the last three days flying thousands of miles from Cairns, in north Queensland, to Adelaide, Canberra and Melbourne, shoring up votes in Labor's most vulnerable seats and calling for a fresh mandate to continue economic and social reforms. He asked Australians to compare his vision of a new, Australian republic, economically engaged in the Asia-Pacific region, with the "philosophically stranded" coalition. "Did we build a new standard, have we created a change?" he asked. "Or do we just nod gently off back to sleep again like we did in the Rip Van Winkle years?"

Mr Keating refused to concede the game was up. And, as commentators discovered three years ago, after writing him off under similar circumstances at the last election, he could be right. Australians have rejected incumbent governments only four times since the Second World War, in 1949, 1972, 1975 and 1983.

Voters may be fed up with the Labor government, convincedit has run out of ideas and turned off by what they perceive as Mr Keating's arrogance. But the government is not swamped by scandal or smelling of decay.

Mr Howard is making his second bid to become prime minister, after failing to dislodge Labor under Bob Hawke in 1987. If Mr Howard has a vision for Australia in the next millennium, he has failed to convey it during the campaign. That explains the grudging endorsement of the coalition in the latest opinion polls yesterday.

Having started the campaign five weeks ago trailing the coalition by 11 points, Labor closed the gap in the three main polls to finish two, three and six points behind respectively. A nationwide poll published in a Brisbane newspaper yesterday gave Labor a one-point lead, the first poll to put Labor ahead. Mr Keating maintained a lead over Mr Howard as preferred prime minister in most polls.

On election eve, it was difficult to measure the impact of the "forged- letters affair", a sensational development on Wednesday in which a senior Labor minister released letters apparently damaging to the coalition, but which later turned out to be fakes. The Labor Party yesterday issued a statement to federal police investigating the affair claiming the letters originated in Liberal Party ranks. Liberals accused Labor staff of forging them.

Three of Australia's leading newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, of Melbourne, and the Australian Financial Review, called for a coalition victory yesterday.But two influential newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch went against the grain. The Australian, his national flagship, declined to endorse either side, while the Daily Telegraph, a mass-circulation Sydney tabloid, backed Mr Keating.

While most papers splashed headlines that predicted Mr Keating's defeat, the Murdoch papers provided upbeat coverage of the final hours of Mr Keating's campaign.

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