Australian prime minister and his conservative government win a third term

Saturday, November 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Prime Minister John Howard and his conservative government won a third term Saturday in national elections dominated by the Australian leader's hard-line stance against illegal immigration.

``I cannot express to you the sense of honor and privilege I feel once again being elected as prime minister of the greatest country in the world,'' Howard told cheering supporters at a Sydney hotel after opposition Labor party leader Kim Beazley conceded defeat and resigned his post.

With 80 percent of the vote counted, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Web site said Howard's Liberal Party had won 67 seats in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament. Its junior coalition partner, the National Party, won 12 seats, giving them a majority.

Labor won 65 seats, the ABC reported, citing Australian Electoral Commission figures. Voting is compulsory and turnout usually is around 96 percent of the country's 12.6 million registered voters. Australians also chose lawmakers for 40 of the 76 seats in the Senate.

Howard's policy of turning away refugee boats became a central plank in his campaign along with his staunch support for U.S.-led military strikes against Afghanistan.

After lagging in opinion polls all year, Howard's popularity began improving in late August when he vowed that 433 mostly Afghan asylum rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry by a Norwegian freighter would never set foot on Australian soil.

Australian commandos boarded the freighter, beginning a standoff with Indonesia and Norway over who should accept the asylum seekers. The tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru eventually agreed to accept most of the refugees for processing _ with Australia footing the bill.

Almost 2,000 asylum seekers on about a dozen boats have since been turned back by the navy or shipped to detention camps built by Australia in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, two impoverished Pacific island nations that are major recipients of Australian aid.

While barring asylum seekers has earned Australia international criticism, opinion polls have shown that more than 70 percent of Australians support the policy.

Beazley also backed it, and the immigrant issue overshadowed the Labor leader's attempts to promote his agenda of tax reform and increased funding for education, health care and research.

Labor needed less than 1 percent more votes than it got in the last election in 1998 to topple the government.

``I am more deeply disappointed than I have ever been in any election,'' former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke said Saturday.

Howard's hard-line immigration stance also took the wind out of the sails of the right-wing One Nation Party and its maverick leader Pauline Hanson, who made headlines in the late 1990s by advocating a ban on Asian immigration. Hanson's party was not expected to win any seats in the lower house, although she had a chance for a Senate seat.

Howard insisted Saturday that the turnaround in voter sentiment began before he adopted the hard-line stance on asylum seekers, and there were dissenting voices.

``The refugee issue has been very badly handled,'' said Bob Smeaton, who cast his ballot in the capital, Canberra. ``I don't think it's in any way true to the Australian spirit, the spirit of allowing people a fair go and allowing people to have an opportunity in this country.''

But key issues on which Beazley differed sharply from Howard _ reconciliation with Australia's indigenous Aborigines, a move to dump the British Queen as symbolic ruler, and relations with Asia _ were pushed aside by the attention to immigration policy.

Beazley had called for more public debate on whether Australia should sever ceremonial ties with Queen Elizabeth II. Howard is a staunch monarchist.

Beazley also said he would apologize to Aborigines for wrongs they have suffered. Many were killed by European settlers during colonization, and some had children taken from them in assimilation programs as recently as the 1970s. Howard has refused to issue a formal apology.

Most of Australia's 19 million citizens are of European descent and the country has long agonized over relations with nearby Asian countries. The last Labor administration focused on improving ties with Asia, but Howard shifted the emphasis back to Europe and the United States.

Beazley had said Labor would rejuvenate Asian ties and seek trade deals there. Labor also said it was not interested in a free-trade agreement with Washington, a deal Howard has been pursuing.