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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 October, 2004, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Australian election: Key issues
Mark Latham (l) and John Howard (r)
Mr Latham and Mr Howard clash over a number of key issues
BBC News Online looks at how the two main parties - the Liberal-National Coalition under John Howard and Labor under Mark Latham - differ in their campaign agendas for the 2004 federal election.

Economy

The biggest issue for most voters is the economy.

Prime Minister John Howard has been stressing his government's strong economic record, and pointing out that he is a safe pair of hands.

"We have fulfilled your trust by delivering the strong economy, the low interest rates, the high employment, the higher real wages and the taxation reform, the industrial reform, all of those things," he told ABC radio during the campaign.

Mark Latham suffers from twin disadvantages of being a relative newcomer as well as competing against an incumbent when times are good.

But he has worked had to convince voters he can be trusted with Australia's economy, and many are taking his promises seriously.

Despite warnings from the conservative coalition that interest rates will go up under a Latham government, the Labor leader has repeatedly promised to spend prudently.

He has promised to offset his spending promises with cuts to ensure the budget remains in surplus.

Tax

John Howard has promised he will not raise taxes if he wins another term in office.

Mr Latham has been somewhat vaguer, ruling out any further increases other than those announced during the election campaign.

Labor's complex A$3.7bn (US$2.7bn)-a-year tax and family plan encourages mothers back to work and cuts taxes for low-income earners, but also - according to critics - leaves the very poorest sectors of society relatively worse off.

Mr Howard has also launched a series of tax breaks, focusing on small businesses.

Iraq

Iraq may not be the most important election issue for Australians, but it is the one being most closely watched by international observers.

John Howard took a political gamble when he committed Australian troops to the US-led war in Iraq, despite huge domestic opposition.

He still sticks by his decision, and has vowed that if he wins another term, the 850 Australian troops currently in and around Iraq will remain there until they are no longer needed.

Mr Latham, who opposed the war from the start, says he will bring the troops home by Christmas - a stance that US President George Bush has criticised as a "disastrous decision".

National security

Ever since the Bali bombings in October 2002, Australians have been more aware than ever that they could be a target of international terrorism.

The bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in September 2004 reminded voters of the terrorist threat.

Mr Latham says a Labor government would concentrate its security efforts in South East Asia, where Islamic militants have carried out a number of bombings aimed at Western targets.

"We don't believe our permanent interests lie on the other side of the world, they lie on our side of the world - and that's one of the reasons why we didn't support the Iraq conflict in the first place," Mr Latham said.

But while admitting that ties with regional nations are important, Mr Howard has described Australia's alliance with the US as "the cornerstone of our national security".

Education and child care

Education and the care of children have also emerged as a key election issue.

The Labor party has put forward a plan to take public money away from some private schools and give it to government schools and poorer private establishments.

For the very young, Labor has promised to introduce a free day of care each week for all three and four-year-olds eligible for the Child Care Benefit.

Mr Howard has hit back, announcing his own spending plan to upgrade schools, and promising to set up technical schools for those not planning to go to university.

He also promised to give parents a 30% rebate to make child care more affordable.

Health care

With health care a major vote winner, both sides have unleashed multi-billion-dollar schemes addressing the publicly-funded Medicare system.

Labor, particularly, has placed a high priority on health issues, pledging to provide free hospital care for people over 75 - a proposal which the conservatives say is unworkable.

Mr Latham has also promised to cut the cost of subsidised medicines, which he said would be paid for by savings initiatives.

Mr Howard said those savings could be better used to fund a special package for pensioners and retirees.

The battle has even turned to spending on specific diseases. Both parties have promised to fund a variety of different causes, including cancer care, screening programmes and methods to combat diabetes.

Environment

According to opinion polls, the Green Party is set for a strong showing in the elections, underlining the importance of environmental issues to the campaign as a whole.

Both sides are keen to ensure that those who choose the Greens as their first preference at least choose their party as a second option.

Top on the environmental agenda is the fate of Tasmania's ancient forests.

Labor has pledged a multi-million-dollar package to reduce logging in Tasmania which the Greens have hailed as a "breakthrough".

Mr Howard has also pledged to preserve the Tasmanian forests, but his proposal is less dramatic and places a high priority on safeguarding jobs in the timber industry.

In another key difference between the two election rivals, Labor plans to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which Mr Howard firmly opposes as being bad for industry.

Indigenous vote

Indigenous issues have drawn headlines more by their absence than by any particular party pledges.

The nation's only indigenous senator, Aden Ridgeway, says the indigenous community has largely been forgotten in the run-up to the poll.

"The campaign so far has been almost devoid of any constructive mention of indigenous affairs or indigenous people," he said.

The main election contenders have also been criticised by the Australian Medical Association, for failing to pledge adequate funding to raise the health of indigenous people to the same level as that of other Australians.

Critics say part of the vacuum surrounding aboriginal issues has been caused by the demise of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which John Howard abolished earlier this year, saying it was being undermined by nepotism and corruption.

Mr Howard plans to replace it with an appointed body of Aboriginal elders.

Mr Latham agreed to the abolition of ATSIC but says an elected body is still needed for the Aboriginal community.




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