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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 February 2007, 00:50 GMT
Howard faces election year battle
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Australian Prime Minister John Howard
John Howard has won four elections, but will he win the next?

John Howard is the type of politician who would happily cross the street to pick a fight.

But his decision to launch inter-continental salvoes half way across the world aimed at the American presidential hopeful Barack Obama, may well have backfired.

At the very moment that many in Australia are questioning whether the 67-year-old prime minister might be showing signs of his physical age and political longevity, he decided to take on the most fresh-faced politician on the global scene, a first-term senator oozing charm and eloquence who has made even seasoned US political commentators swoon.

By assailing Senator Obama's proposal to withdraw US troops from Iraq by next March, Mr Howard also chose to take him on over an increasingly unpopular war.

One interpretation of Mr Howard's Sunday morning talkshow broadside is that he was deliberately showcasing his national security credentials, and, in so doing, actually launching a veiled attack on the new opposition leader, Kevin Rudd.

Although he could hardly be described as a politician with the aura of a rock star, the new Labor leader has induced much the same reaction amongst Australian political hacks as Mr Obama has achieved in America.

Newer issues are capturing the public imagination that don't suit Howard's style of politics
Rodney Smith
University of Sydney

With sharper political reflexes and more polished presentational skills, the 49-year-old Queenslander certainly cuts a more telegenic figure than Kim Beazley, the gaffe-prone leader whom he replaced in December.

Mr Rudd, a smooth-talking former diplomat, is currently enjoying a particularly dreamy political honeymoon, made even more enjoyable by a bucketful of good polls.

An ACNielsen survey released on Monday suggested the highest approval rating for an opposition leader in the 35 year history of the poll.

Some 48% of respondents said they wanted Kevin Rudd as prime minister, while 43% plumped for the incumbent.

'Signs of complacency'

So on the vexed question of Iraq, Mr Howard is now trying to turn a negative into a plus.

He is presenting himself as a man of courage and conviction, and portraying Kevin Rudd as a political opportunist.

Australia's Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd
Kevin Rudd is beating John Howard in the popularity ratings

"I have been attacked and lacerated by the opposition for expressing my view [on Iraq]," the prime minister said during a heated exchange in parliament on Tuesday, "but the leader of the opposition does not have the guts to express his."

Later that evening, he told ABC television: "The public may not agree with my position on Iraq, but at least they know where I stand."

Authenticity is a quality that Australians respect in their political leaders, according to Gerard Henderson of the conservative think-tank, the Sydney Institute, and it has helped the prime minister in the past.

"What he says publicly is no different from what he says privately. He's stubborn, he doesn't walk away from tough issues, he's direct and provides certainty," Mr Henderson said.

But one of the main effects of the row over Iraq has been to bind Mr Howard even closer to George W Bush, a US president deeply unpopular in many quarters of the Australian electorate.

Whether it is his reluctance to engineer the quick release of David Hicks, an Australian imprisoned for five years without trial at Guantanamo Bay, or his shared stance with the Bush administration over Kyoto, Mr Howard would appear to be on the wrong side of public opinion.

Rudd gets up early in the morning, is good with the one-liner, just like Howard, and is just as obsessive about getting on the media
Gerard Henderson
Sydney Institute

On the environment, Howard compounded his problems last week by making a rare parliamentary gaffe, suggesting the "jury was out" on the linkage between emissions and climate change just days after the UN's landmark report.

Later, he returned to the chamber to claim that he misheard the question, mistakenly thinking it referred to a possible link between emissions and Australia's present drought, the "Big Dry" which has added to his political problems.

"After 10 years, there are signs of complacency," said Rodney Smith, a political commentator at the University of Sydney.

"He's definitely less cautious and seems to be thinking of himself as invulnerable. He's less quick on the rebound. When he's stumbled before, he's reacted much more quickly."

Trusted figure

In recent times, Mr Howard has not dominated the news agenda with quite the same monopolising effect - a skill he started to perfect even before he became premier by regularly appearing on early morning radio talk shows to deliver the superlative sound-bite of the day.

Kevin Rudd appears to have read the John Howard playbook.

Barack Obama
Mr Howard's comments about Barak Obama were heavily criticised

As Gerard Henderson points out: "Rudd gets up early in the morning, is good with the one-liner, just like Howard, and is just as obsessive about getting on the media. He's taking every media opportunity that comes his way."

Arguably, the prime minister's failure to dominate the news agenda is less of a problem at the moment than his inability to set the news agenda.

Climate change and the water crisis: This year's election - the date of which has not yet been set - might well be framed by issues which do not necessarily play to the prime minister's strengths.

"Newer issues are capturing the public imagination that don't suit Howard's style of politics and fit his core political beliefs," says Rodney Smith.

"On issues like the power of the unions, taxation, freeing up public enterprise and economic management he was on good ground with the Australian populace. But the ground has shifted."

Mr Howard himself tacitly acknowledged this when his first major speech of the year, delivered on the eve of Australia Day, was devoted exclusively to the water crisis.

Still, Mr Howard will take some measure of comfort from the fact that the same poll which showed the Liberals trailing Labor also suggested he remained the most trusted figure when it came to national security and the economy.

There is certainly a cyclic element to much of the political coverage in Australia at present, with Canberra hacks happy to deliver readers a new, more compelling narrative: The rise of a rejuvenated Labor Party set against the troubles of an office-weary prime minister.

The problem right now, at least, for Mr Howard is that he is inadvertently helping to embellish that plot-line, and lending those stories the ring of truth.

Osama for Obama. In the sometimes anaemic world of Australian politics, stories do not get much better than that.

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