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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 14:13 GMT
Howard marks 10 years on top
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

John Howard
Beneath the unassuming facade lies a very determined politician
"I've got less hair and I'm older and uglier."

That is how Australia's veteran Prime Minister John Howard marked his 10th anniversary in office, on 2 March, in a newspaper interview.

To his supporters, the former solicitor from suburban Sydney is a strong leader who has a steady hand on the economy and national security.

But his opponents mockingly describe him as a "deputy sheriff" of the United States, who sent Australian soldiers into the chaos of an unjust war in Iraq.

Critics have even accused his government of crimes against humanity over its uncompromising stance towards asylum seekers.

"Howard is not flashy or overbearing," said Richard Kings, a conservative commentator.

Indeed. The 66-year-old prime minister is a short, balding man with bushy eyebrows and imperfect teeth.

Australian troops in Iraq - archive picture
The invasion of Iraq seriously split public opinion

Beneath this unassuming exterior, there is a clever and determined politician. Last December, John Winston Howard became Australia's second-longest serving prime minister, behind Robert Menzies.

"He appeals to the ordinary man as honest, hard working (and) firm in his religious convictions," Mr Kings said.

"He's good at balancing the economy, jobs, and security from external threat."

Terror fears

The Howard years have seen Australia follow a more muscular foreign policy.

Troops were sent into Afghanistan in 2001 and then into Iraq during the US-led invasion.

Opponents have claimed Australia's involvement in these distant military campaigns has made it more of a target for terrorists.

Office building in Sydney - archive image
A strong economy has been good for jobs

But John Howard owes his success at the ballot box - with election wins in 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004 - to his domestic agenda.

He has presided over Australia's longest post-war economic boom, with unemployment reaching record lows, although an estimated one million people still live in poverty.

Rodney Smith from the University of Sydney believes that a strong economy has been key to the veteran leader's political longevity.

"Most Australians who are in employment and paying off mortgages haven't been facing the sorts of crises under Howard that they were certainly facing from time-to-time under the previous Labor government," he said.

Leaner or meaner?

Even his critics have conceded that Mr Howard is an astute operator.

"He has become the great survivor," said Warren Mundine, the national president of the opposition Labor party.

Mr Mundine is one of Australia's most senior indigenous figures. Yet despite his political affiliations, he became a member of the committee that advises Mr Howard on Aboriginal affairs.

"Bugger all was done for indigenous people in the first six years of the Howard government," Mr Mundine said.

But he believes that some progress is now being made, and that the prime minister has a genuine desire to help impoverished native communities emerge from poverty and despair.

Warren Mundine (AAP)
Warren Mundine says Howard wants Aboriginals to be like whites
However, fundamental disagreements remain.

"We come from different political viewpoints," Mr Mundine said.

"Howard wants Aboriginals to be like white people, but I come from a different perspective. We need to keep our culture and we need to keep our Aboriginality strong," he said.

Mr Howard has also clashed with trade unions, over controversial industrial relations changes, and those who believe that Australia has become a meaner, more selfish society under his stewardship.

A committed monarchist, the prime minister has battled republicans who want to replace Queen Elizabeth II with an Australian head of state.

A referendum on the issue in 1999 resulted in a satisfying victory for a conservative leader, who has become used to getting his own way.

"The Howard years have been challenging," said Ted O'Brien from the Australian Republican Movement.

"But guess what? The issue is still very much alive and the vast majority of Australians still want a republic. We're still standing. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, we're just warming up," he said.

Republicans dream of the day Mr Howard hangs up his political boots.

There have been few hints as to when that time might come. As long as he remains fit and eager, he could stay on for a few more years yet.

"I can't think of one occasion in the last 10 years that I have thought 'Gee, I wish had another job'," Mr Howard told Australian radio.

"I still have enormous enthusiasm, almost boyishly so, for the job."




SEE ALSO:
Australian PM wins fourth term
09 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia mulls new security laws
24 Jul 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: John Howard
09 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Australia
03 May 01 |  Asia-Pacific
Country Profile: Australia
03 May 01 |  Country profiles


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