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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 October, 2004, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Howard's fortress remains impregnable
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.

Australian prime minister John Howard
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.

Latham's inexperience

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 remains impregnable.

This is one of the most vicious and dishonest campaigns I've seen by the Liberal Party. The reality is though, it does work.
Peter Beattie
Queensland Premier

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 suburbs.

Negative campaign

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."

Labor party leader Mark Latham
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 three-year term.

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 achievement".

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.

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