Australian PM Howard in No Hurry to Retire

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - One of President Bush's closest allies is facing escalating pressure to signal his intention to retire, but he indicated on Thursday that he is in no hurry.

"There's still a lot of things I want to do," conservative Australian Prime Minister John Howard said in a radio interview. "I find that I am still very committed to this job and I still get stimulated by it. I still enjoy meeting people."

Howard, who marked 10 years in office last March, was embroiled in a public row this week with his ambitious Treasurer and deputy, Peter Costello.

Costello charged that the two had made a succession pact 12 years ago, in which Howard would serve one-and-a-half electoral terms and then hand over to Costello. Howard had broken it, he said.

The prime minister, who is currently serving his fourth three-year term, has frequently denied the existence of an agreement. He said Thursday he would not be "pressured or stampeded" into taking a decision or making an announcement on his plans.

The situation bears some resemblance to the one facing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose second-in-charge and heir apparent, Chancellor Gordon Brown, is also seen as eager to assume the leadership position.

Like Blair, Howard's future plans are the subject of constant media speculation. Under the parliamentary system in place in the two countries, the leader of the majority party can remain prime minister for as many terms as the party wishes.

Howard repeated his stance that he would remain at the helm of his Liberal Party as long as his colleagues wanted him.

It was his sense, now, that the party wanted him to remain in his position, and Costello to remain in his.

The 66-year-old prime minister has won four consecutive elections - the last, in Oct. 2004, with an increased majority - and in late 2004 became the country's second-longest serving prime minister ever.

His comments Thursday suggested that he may contest a fifth, due by 2007.

Like Blair and Brown, Howard and Costello have been a formidable political team, seeing off repeated attempts by the opposition to return to power.

Costello, 48, met with Howard this week and said that for the good of the party he wanted a smooth leadership transition before the next election once Howard decided to step aside.

He has not ruled out making an outright challenge for the party leadership, although political analysts say Howard currently enjoys considerably more support in the hierarchy than does his rival.

At a press conference on an unrelated matter Thursday, Costello refused to answer any more questions on the leadership issue, saying he had done so for three days and there was no point in repeating himself.

Howard has been a strong supporter of U.S. foreign policy, particularly since 9/11, and has also built a close personal relationship with President Bush.

"Howard has developed a credibility and a presence in the international system that pays great dividends for Australia," political analyst Greg Sheridan argued in The Australian daily Thursday.

This was not only evident in relations with the U.S, but also with countries in East Asia and Europe, he said.

It was absurd to assume that Howard must be nearing retirement at 66.

"There is no reason why the nation should not be able to reap the benefits of Howard's international standing for another five or six years."

Meanwhile, some government lawmakers are pressing Howard to make a public announcement soon about whether he plans to run again. And some have begun to question Costello's suitability to be the next leader after the week's events.

Howard himself has refrained from criticism, praising his deputy's achievements as Treasurer over the past decade and calling him "very talented" and a "very capable member of the team."

See earlier story:
Political Milestone for Bush's Australian Ally (Dec. 21, 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow