Friday, October 08, 2004

Australia Govt in Pole Position for Saturday Vote

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's government looked set for a fourth straight term, according to a poll trend released on the eve of Saturday's election, as rival leaders made last-minute pitches over the economy and the U.S.-led Iraq war.
The Reuters Poll Trend showed on Friday the Liberal/National coalition government with a narrow 1.2-point lead over center-left Labor on a two-party preferred basis, where preferences from minor parties are distributed to major parties until a winner is declared.

Politicians rarely win an outright majority in Australian elections. Casting a ballot is compulsory for the 13 million registered voters who must number candidates on ballot papers in order of preference.

"This is a close election ... we have a very big challenge and I don't want anybody to believe the polls on the face of it," Prime Minister John Howard told Australian radio on Friday.

The poll trend, using three polls taken between Sept. 30 and Oct. 3, shows the government with a 6.3-point lead on a primary vote basis, or first count of votes, with 45.4 percent support.

At the 2001 election the government secured 43.1 percent of the primary vote compared with center-left Labor's 37.8 percent.

Howard has said the election could be decided by preferences from the Greens, who have three elected representatives and seven percent support in opinion polls, the most of any minor party.

Analysts say Greens preferences will flow heavily to Labor.

Editorials in major newspapers on Friday tipped a coalition win and bookmakers have installed Howard as a red-hot favorite.

Howard and Labor leader Mark Latham have vowed to keep downward pressure on interest rates, an important pledge for mortgage-laden Australians, and to keep the budget in surplus.

Australia's robust economy, one of the industrialized world's strongest, has been the biggest issue of the six-week campaign, along with health care, education and the environment.

While it has resonated with relatively few voters, the biggest point of difference between the major parties has been over Howard's unquestioning support for the U.S. alliance and Iraq war and Latham's emphasis on building ties with Asia.

"I don't think there are a lot of votes in Iraq for either side and the reason neither side is hitting it very hard is they have the same view," respected political commentator Laurie Oakes told his Nine Network television.

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The election has attracted international attention because Australia's two Iraq war allies also soon face elections, the United States on Nov. 2 and Britain in May or June.

Latham has vowed to bring Australia's 850 troops in and around Iraq home by Christmas if he wins on Saturday, while Howard is adamant they will stay as long as they are needed.

Howard stood by his commitment on Friday despite a U.S. report showing intelligence used to justify the Iraq war had not been proven and a surprise statement by Bush that pre-war claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were wrong.

"I believed the intelligence and it's a disappointment to me that intelligence has not been borne out but it was there, it was very strong and it was acted upon in good faith -- and I wasn't the only leader that did so," Howard told Australian radio.

Latham stepped up his attack on Howard over Iraq.

"Howard's adventurism and mistakes in Iraq have meant we have made Australia less safe in the war against terror," he said.

"We have made ourselves a bigger target and we have diverted resources to the other side of the world when we should have been putting them into Asia," Latham told Australian radio.

Howard and Latham devoted most of their attention on Friday to the economy and environment, with the southern island state of Tasmania and its virgin, old-growth forests a key battleground. Labor was accused of selling out the timber industry, while conservation groups condemned the government.

Howard's government holds 82 seats in the nation's 150 seat lower house of parliament and would be out of office if it lost seven seats and the support of independents. Labor needs to win 12 seats to claim power.

  • Australian opposition leader to win campaign but lose election: analysts
  • Leaders make final campaign pitch to voters

    AG: Between Howard and Latham, between Liberal Party and Labour Party, lets our fellow Aussie to decide. Fate of our NEW Australian was your hand. Good governance was not just rhetoric and pure cheap patriots policy. Its about move forward. Australia we're ready to change...
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