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Thursday, 18 October, 2001, 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK
Australian leaders go to battle
John Howard, left, shakes hands with Kim Beazley at the start of the TV debate. Host Ray Matin in centre.
Mr Beazley's campaign has been overshadowed
By Phil Mercer in Sydney

Nominations have now closed for candidates to register for Australia's general election on 10 November.

Six main parties will be competing for votes but for the moment the focus is on two men.

Prime Minister John Howard - who is hoping to win a third time in office, and is currently leading all the major opinion polls.

The main parties
Liberal Party
Labor Party
National Party
Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party
And opposition leader Kim Beazley - widely thought by political pundits to have "won" this week's nationwide TV debate between the two leaders.

Mr Beazley, a close friend of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, is lagging well behind in the polls and needs all the help he can get before Australia votes in three weeks time.

He will have been cheered by the TV debate's election "worm" - a second-by-second electronic measurement of the studio audience's response to the candidates' performance.

HMAS Adelaide leading battle group
About 1,500 Australian troops have been promised to help the US in Afghanistan
The worm confirmed Mr Beazley's superiority on the night - a big boost considering an audience of 2.5-million Australians (out of a total population of less than 19-million) stayed up to watch.

Not surprisingly, the Labor leader wants another chance to go head-to-head with Mr Howard - the prime minister's predictable response has been a firm "No".

Howard's team confident

Although only one debate had ever been planned Kim Beazley has still accused his conservative opponent of being a coward.

The terrorist attacks have wiped out the room for calm discussion

Sydney Morning Herald editorial
"He has not got the courage to debate me again on other vital matters - such as health, the environment and aged care," he said.

Mr Howard said he had answered more questions in parliament than any other prime minister in 20 years and insisted there was no need for another televised political beauty contest.

The debate, and the opposition's glowing performance in it, has not troubled senior members of Mr Howard's cabinet.

"I wouldn't take all my political views from worms," said Treasurer Peter Costello, who is widely considered to be next in line for the top job when Mr Howard decides to retire.

'Money, money, money'

This week Mr Costello delivered the Howard government another pre-election boost with an upbeat economic assessment. Australia would, according to Mr Costello, ride out the downturn in world markets and achieve growth of more than 3% over the next two years.

Refugees wash outside tent
A tough line on refugees has paid off for Howard
The Treasurer was so pleased with his prediction, and no doubt the impact he thought it would have on the voters, that shortly afterwards he broke into song with a rendition of the classic Abba hit "Money, Money, Money" live on a Brisbane radio station.

Opinion polls are certainly giving John Howard's coalition of two right-wing parties, the Liberals and the Nationals, something to celebrate. Pollsters ACNielsen, Newspoll and Morgan are showing a big gap between the Howard coalition and Labor.

The good health of the government in the lead up to polling day is largely down to two issues: its tough stance on asylum seekers; and its response to the global war on terrorism.

Most Australians support moves to stop boat people entering the country illegally and have signalled their acceptance that their military forces must fight shoulder to shoulder with the US and Britain in Afghanistan.

An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper said the "terrorist attacks have wiped out the room for calm discussion" in this election campaign, and most voters, it said, were happy that the government was finally "doing something about boat people".

However, the paper lamented that issues which could potentially embarrass Mr Howard, such as health, education, care for the elderly and industrial relations, were simply not on the agenda as Australia prepares to decide its political destiny for the next five years.

See also:

08 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Air strikes overshadow Australian election
05 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australian election date set
07 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Refugee children 'thrown from ship'
04 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Refugee standoff ends
09 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia talks tough on migrants
01 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Pacific states step into the breach
21 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Howard's refugee gamble paying off
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