Australian Election Campaign Enters Final Stages

Both major parties in Australia's federal election officially launched their campaigns this week. The government of conservative Prime Minister John Howard is promising voters massive tax cuts if it wins the November 24 election. Australia's opposition Labor party, which is well ahead in the opinion polls, has made education reform one of its key election pledges. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

The Howard government is presenting itself to voters as a group of experienced politicians that Australians can rely on.

Its campaign for a fifth consecutive term in office is built around one word - trust.

Prime Minister John Howard insists his team has the ability to guide Australia's growing economy into the future and has the expertise to deal responsibly with issues surrounding climate change, as well as national security.

Like most elections, this one will be decided by domestic issues. Health, education and taxes are key battlegrounds.

Launching his coalition government's re-election campaign in Brisbane, Mr. Howard told voters he has big plans for Australia's future.

"And I want to tell you why I believe the coalition should be returned. I want to tell you why I want to be prime minister of this country again," he said. "I want to share with you my hopes and my dreams for a better future. And in the process, I hope, crystallize very clearly the important choice that must be made on the 24th of November."

Mr. Howard has been Prime Minister since 1996.

Television advertisements by the opposition Labor party urge Australians to vote for change at the ballot box.

Labor says, after so long in power, the Howard government has run out of steam.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat, has promised to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change if he wins the election. Mr. Howard has refused, saying the treaty would damage Australia's economy.

Rudd has made education a key part of his election campaign and is promising to improve training for young workers, as well as guaranteeing primary school students access to high-speed Internet and computers.

"I've been talking about an education revolution all year," he said. "Labor has placed education on the national political agenda. I don't care whether schools are government owned or non-government. What I am concerned about is the quality of education provided through those schools and their physical assets, infrastructure and the training of their teachers."

Rudd, who's campaigned under the slogan 'New Leadership', has a sizable lead in opinion polls as he has for the past year.

Many Australian voters appear to be warming to him.

"I supported John Howard last time but he's been there for 11 years. He is getting older. Kevin Rudd seems to me to be energetic, enthusiastic and I quite like what I see with Kevin," he said.

Other voters, however, believe Kevin Rudd simply doesn't have the experience to manage a prosperous country.

"Here we have a new leadership issue again, and I'm yet to be convinced that in fact he's got enough experience to control the Senate and the front bench that he will have," another voter said.

The campaign is approaching its final week and Marise Payne, a government member of the Senate - Australia's upper house of parliament - believes John Howard's economic record should be enough to secure victory, even though rising interest rates are putting greater pressure on homeowners.

"The interest rate rise is a matter which is of concern to Australian families.," she said. "There are pressures that they're facing and one of the reasons that we progressed very early in the campaign with family tax cuts was to acknowledge those, so the most important things that we are trying to do is trying to ensure that we are managing the economy with the treasurer and the prime minister at the helm as they have been so responsibly over the last 11 years."

Malaysian-born Labor Senator Penny Wong says voters will have a clear choice on November 24 and says her party has shown it has the vision to improve Australia.

"There are very clear policy differences between the parties," she said. "There are very different approaches to how we should deal with things such as the skills shortages, the sorts of policy we need to ensure that Australian children have the skills they need for the jobs for the future. A very different approach from health from a Howard government, who's reduced funding to our public hospitals. Very different approach on workplace relations."

Both parties have offered voters multi-billion dollar tax cuts, but there are many differences between them when it comes to defense and national security. Labor opposes Australia's involvement in Iraq. It has promised a staged-withdrawal from the Persian Gulf if it wins office, while the conservatives insist the 1500 troops will stay as long as they are needed. Both parties, though, support the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan and see close military and economic ties with the United States as fundamental to Australia's long-term security.