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Last Updated: Friday, 2 May, 2003, 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK
Howard gets Australia guessing

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

The most pivotal day of the year for Australia may well turn out to be 26 July.

It is the day when the country's long-serving prime minister, John Howard, turns 64.

The veteran leader has promised to reveal his future plans by the time he celebrates this milestone.

John Howard
John Howard is currently riding high in the opinion polls

And there is every indication that John Winston Howard - the cautious conservative, arch-monarchist and a man within touching distance of his pension - is not ready for retirement just yet.

As he heads for talks with US President George W Bush, Mr Howard is still very much on top of his game.

He recently weathered a storm of anti-war sentiment after committing troops to the Middle East, and has guided Australia unscathed through the Iraq conflict.

He is now regarded as an international statesman by President Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair.

His standing at home is rosy too. The economy continues to perform well, although unemployment remains a stubborn problem.

Mr Howard's right-wing coalition of Liberals and Nationals has built up a healthy lead over the opposition in the opinion polls.

The Labor party, defeated in the past three general elections, is in chaos. Simon Crean, whose leadership is regarded as grey and uninspiring by most Australians, seems likely to face a challenge from the man he replaced, Kim Beazley.

Such a messy battle for supremacy would help cement the Howard Government's grip on power.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard
Howard has a loyal following in "Middle Australia"

Newspaper columnist Piers Akerman believes the prime minister is prepared to fight for a fourth consecutive term in office.

"John Howard would like to get out at an optimal time, when his personal popularity is riding high," Mr Akerman, who writes for Sydney's Daily Telegraph, told BBC News Online.

"If the Labor opposition maintains its current level of disarray, then he would probably consider his future after a successful election next year, probably in August."

Under the constitution, he has until November 2004 to call a new election.

John Howard is a skilled politician and a ruthless operator. Publicly at least, senior ministerial colleagues are not yet ready to pension him off.

"He's just done a wonderful job," said Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer.

"I don't recall, ever, a prime minister getting stronger the longer he has been in the job, and more popular."

Retiring with grace

Even if Mr Howard decides to quit, he will probably not step down until the end of this year at the earliest.

That would enable him to surpass the seven years and four months served by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, seen as one of the godfathers of Australian conservatism.

Retiring with grace and leaving behind a popular government and a stable party would secure Mr Howard's place as the modern champion of right-wing politics.

The man himself has said very little about his plans. But he did suggest in a recent radio interview that Australia would not have to wait too long to find out.

"I'll be saying something about my medium and longer-term future in the not-too-distant future," he said.

The suspense is unbearable for some. An editorial in one Australian newspaper has demanded an end to what it called the "will he, won't he" speculation.

"The job of prime minister is a serious one, and if Mr Howard believes he still has the energy and commitment to perform it, he should say so now, rather than wait for whenever he believes is the right moment," the paper said.

All this leaves the heir to the Howard Government, Treasurer Peter Costello, waiting even longer for a chance at the top job.

Mr Costello's supporters have told The Age newspaper in Melbourne that they are certain the prime minister will stay on until after the next election, and that it would be "useless to press for a leadership change while Howard's political stocks are high."




SEE ALSO:
Leading Australia into battle
15 Mar 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Howard lifted by Iraq war
15 Apr 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Australian role in post-war Iraq
10 Apr 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Howard outlines case for Iraq war
13 Mar 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: John Howard
20 Mar 02  |  Asia-Pacific



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