Liberal leader woos middle Australia

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The Independent Online
Without mentioning republicanism once, John Howard, Australia's opposition leader, yesterday launched his bid to win the forthcoming general election with a vote-buying package aimed squarely at families and small business, the heartland of middle Australia.

Mr Howard, 56, is leader of the Liberal Party, the senior partner in the conservative Liberal-National coalition, which is trying to end 13 years of Labor Party rule at the election on 2 March. The coalition leads the Labor government, headed by Paul Keating, by up to 10 percentage points in opinion polls, although one poll last week put the gap at two points.

It is Mr Howard's second attempt to become prime minister. After losing the 1987 election to Labor he stepped down as Liberal leader. A year ago, the party reinstated him after three other leaders had successively failed to dislodge Labor from power in Canberra.

Sensing he may at last be on a victory roll, Mr Howard returned to his own constituency in the middle-class Sydney suburb of Ryde to launch his campaign before a rousing audience of party faithful. The centrepiece was a series of tax cuts, worth A$1bn (pounds 500m), to ease burdens for families raising children. Mr Howard also announced incentives for small business, which he said was the "heart of the Australian dream", but which had been crushed by taxes and regulations under Labor.

To pay for the tax cuts, Mr Howard proposes to cut public spending by more than A$6bn over the next three years. Some cuts are aimed at areas that would appeal to conservativeAustralia such as welfare fraud and restricting access to social security for new immigrants.

Mr Keating, campaigning yesterday in Cairns, north Queensland, said: "He's building a confidence trick on Australian families with promises that he can't possibly fund.''

What was absent from Mr Howard's launch was any reference to Mr Keating's proposal to hold a plebiscite within a year of Labor's re-election on the question of Australia becoming a republic. Mr Howard has always been a monarchist, but he has toned down his anti- republican views in the face of opinion polls, which show that a majority of Australians support replacing the Queen with an Australian as head of state.

Mr Howard believes the question will not sway voters either way. Yet it remains one of the few issues which distinguishes the government from the opposition.