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Wednesday, 7 November, 2001, 10:43 GMT
Howard attacks asylum critics
Opinion poll chart
Australia's Prime Minister John Howard has attacked critics of his tough policy on asylum seekers as opinion polls showed Saturday's elections too close to call.

Mr Howard's popularity rose strongly after trailing in opinion polls earlier this year when he first adopted the policy of turning boat people away from Australia's shores.

PM John Howard at Apec meeting
Howard: More to foreign policy than Indonesia
But the prime minister has come under fire at home and abroad for failing to explore diplomatic solutions with Indonesia, the main corridor for refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Opposition Labor Party leader Kim Beazley has promised negotiations with Indonesia on how to deal with refugees and people smugglers.

And three prominent Australian academics said on Wednesday the government had weakened Australia's regional standing by failing to co-operate with Indonesia over asylum seekers

Professors Ross Garnaut, Peter Drysdale and Stuart Harris, foreign policy experts at Canberra's Australian National University, said in a joint statement published in The Australian newspaper that the government had spoken to Indonesian leaders "through the megaphone of domestic politics".

But Mr Howard said on Wednesday that most of his critics wrongly saw Australia's foreign policy beginning and ending with Indonesia.

He said relations with northern Asia were also important and, after last month's meeting of Apec leaders in Shanghai, "could not be better".

However, relations with Indonesia took a downturn at the Apec meeting when a planned meeting between Mr Howard and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri failed to take place.

Mr Howard brushed off reports that he had been snubbed because of the asylum issue.

Both Mr Howard and Mr Beazley have been accused by Indonesia of using the asylum issue for short-term political gain.

Knife-edge election

A series of opinion polls has put Mr Howard's ruling coalition neck-and-neck with Labor.

Labor leader Kim Beazley
Beazley has been keen to focus on domestic issues
One poll published on Wednesday gave Labor a nine-point lead, although analysts say the Morgan poll published in the Herald Sun newspaper is at odds with other figures.

Just a few weeks ago, it looked like Mr Howard would romp home, buoyed by his tough approach to asylum seekers and robust backing of the US in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

But analysts say Mr Beazley has recovered by concentrating on domestic issues and by outshining the prime minister in the campaign's only televised leadership debate last month.

On Wednesday, Mr Beazley told an audience at the National Press Club that Labor would not threaten the economy by loosening controls on spending and driving up interest rates.

Ross Garnaut, professor of economics
says Australia's flawed foreign policy has weakened its standing in the Asia-Pacific region
See also:

30 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia rescues sinking refugees
26 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Two officers arrested over boat disaster
20 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia intercepts asylum boat
21 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Howard's refugee gamble paying off
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