By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney
John Howard has secured a place in Australian political history after an
unexpectedly comfortable win in the general election.
John Howard has won a fourth term in office
The veteran conservative is now on course to become the country's second longest serving prime minister behind Sir Robert Menzies.
Now Howard's right-wing coalition has extended its grip on parliament. It is the
first time since the 1960s that an incumbent government has increased its
majority at two consecutive elections.
This has been a spellbinding weekend for Mr Howard and his supporters. For the opposition, it has been a disaster. One senior Labor figure said
the situation was extremely grim.
The result is a huge setback for the party leader Mark Latham. His job seems
safe for now. For a party wounded by this defeat, there are not too many
obvious alternatives to Mr Latham.
The gamble of putting an inexperienced candidate up against a wily
campaigner like Mr Howard clearly has not worked.
Mr Latham took over last December and gave a dispirited party an
immediate lift. But it was not enough and John Howard's conservative fortress
Labor has not won a federal election since 1993. That barren picture
compares starkly with the party's fortunes at a local level, where it
controls every state and territory government around Australia.
One of the party's most successful politicians, the Queensland Premier Peter
Beattie, said his federal counterparts failed because they were "too nice".
His advice for the opposition is to fight harder and dirtier.
"This is one
of the most vicious and dishonest campaigns I've seen by the [governing]
Liberal Party," Mr Beattie told ABC radio. "The reality is though, it does
work - the Labor Party can't ignore it any longer."
The Sydney Morning Herald said the election came down to key factors - trust
and fear, especially over the question of interest rates, which are so
important to the army of voters with mortgages in Australia's endless
The government repeatedly hammered away at the same point during
the campaign - that with Mark Latham in control the economic boom would
falter and interest rates would rise.
"People were interested in the new young Labor leader," the Herald reported,
"but they weren't anywhere near ready to trust him."
As for Mr Howard's campaign; "Yes, it was negative," the paper concluded,
"but it contrasted with Labor's set of much more complicated messages."
Latham could not turn around Labor fortunes
If there are doubts over Labor's destiny under Mark Latham there are
questions about the conservatives under John Howard. How long will he
remain as prime minister?
At 65, his career would appear to be almost over. Mr Howard can now plan a
fairytale retirement from Australian politics. In December he will eclipse
Bob Hawke's record as the second longest-serving prime minister.
But he is still behind Robert Menzies who served a total of 18 years and five months, from 1939 to 1941 and then from 1949 through to 1966.
Mr Howard's successor is most likely to be his long-serving treasurer Peter
Costello. However, no-one is yet ruling out John Howard serving a full
In his victory address, the prime minister said Australia was a proud and
respected nation that was "on the threshold of a new era of great
Others have a more gloomy view of the future. The Greens leader Senator Bob
Brown said the result would herald the beginning of "nastier Australia",
where the disadvantaged would be forgotten.
Opinion from Washington was far more enthusiastic. President George W Bush
was happy with the election result. "Australia is a great ally in the war on
terror, and John Howard is the right man to lead that country," Mr Bush said.
Under a re-elected conservative government, Australian troops in the Gulf
will stay on indefinitely. Labor had promised to bring them home by
Christmas if it won power.