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Australian elections Sunday, 4 October, 1998, 19:35 GMT 20:35 UK
John Howard: Proven resilience
Prime Minister Howard: a thin line between strength and obstinacy
By Sydney Correspondent Red Harrison

Like his illustrious namesake, 59-year-old John Winston Howard, leader of the conservative Liberal Party and Prime Minister since March 1996, is a formidable debater and a singularly resilient and tenacious politician.

He has outlasted every Australian political leader of his time, and defied the sceptics by securing victory in the 1998 elections - albeit by a reduced majority.

The election campaign illustrated, however, why Mr Howard has been sometimes been accused of lapsing into a dangerous confusion between strength and stubbornness.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]He bet his political future - and his government's - on a conviction that Australians are willing to dig into their pockets to pay a new consumption tax of 10% on all goods and services, including food and children's clothing.

Only five years ago, a Liberal Party predecessor, John Hewson, was annihilated by the Labor Party when he proposed a similar tax, but Mr Howard remained unshaken - and managed to carry a majority of voters with him.

"My instinct," he said, "is that people in the end will go for something which is good for their long-term future provided they regard it as fair."

Thorny issue of tax

Mr Howard's goods and services tax (GST) is the central pillar of proposals to reform the entire taxation system.

In compensation for the GST, Mr Howard offers to reduce other taxes and eliminate some, but polls among middle and lower income groups indicate widespread suspicion and cynicism, especially about promises that the GST will never be increased.

Many people believe the poor will become poorer if they are forced to pay a GST while the abolition of other taxes will simply fatten the pockets of those who are already well off.

Detractors call him dull

Critics, especially in the largely left-leaning media, frequently portray Mr Howard as a man who has squandered his time in office, a timid, overly cautious leader better suited to the dreary life of a suburban solicitor, which he used to be before entering politics 24 years ago.

A charitable explanation of this melancholy view might be that it is seriously blinkered.

Time after time, Mr Howard has demonstrated that he is not afraid to take hard and unpopular decisions, particularly in his economic reforms.

These have turned a budget deficit into a substantial surplus, kept interest rates down and, so far, largely protected Australia from the financial crises in Asia.

He has withstood tumultuous resistance in implementing new laws on gun controls, aboriginal land ownership, compulsory trade unionism, welfare spending and the sale of Telstra, the government-owned communications giant.

Image matters

Sound economic management, however, is seldom regarded as a platform for political charisma and, undeniably, Mr Howard has a problem in personal style.

He has had his teeth capped, his eyebrows trimmed, and changed the frames of his spectacles.

Yet Mr Howard remains a short, balding, almost deaf man who looks uncomfortable with strangers, a dull speaker whose seeming inability to inspire confidence in his leadership often sees him under challenge from within his party.

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