Howard Leads on Eve of Australian Election

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - With polls favoring conservative Prime Minister John Howard as Australia's election campaign entered its final day Friday, the incumbent said his rival was getting desperate by bringing up 16-year-old comments relating to immigration and race.

Labor leader Mark Latham, whose party appears to have made no headway in polls during the campaign and remains some four points behind, accused Howard of supporting "racially discriminatory" policies on Asian immigration in the 1980s.

Responding to ads questioning his record as mayor of Liverpool, a city near Sydney, Latham told a Sydney radio station: "I tell you one thing I wasn't doing in the late 1980s. I wasn't running around Liverpool saying we should get rid of Asian migrants and run a racially discriminatory immigration policy. If you want to go back into Mr. Howard's history, that's what he was doing at that time."

According to media reports at the time, Howard in 1988 cited community concerns and said slowing down the rate of Asian immigration "a little" would make absorption into Australian society easier.

Howard told Australian television Friday he could not stop Latham from making the comments but added: "It's a sign of desperation that he would raise such an issue on the eve of the campaign. Why isn't he talking about his positive policies?"

"We've run a completely non-discriminatory immigration policy," Howard said. "We don't discriminate against anybody in this country on the basis of their race and Mr. Latham knows that."

Latham also accused Howard, a close ally of President Bush, of misleading Australians about the Iraq war.

Earlier, the prime minister reiterated his stance that he had no regrets about sending troops to participate in the campaign, despite a report by U.S. weapons inspectors concluding that Saddam Hussein had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Labor opposed the war and has vowed to withdraw Australian troops from the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq by the end of the year if it wins Saturday's election.

The eleventh-hour flare-up comes as various polls show Howard's coalition leading by around seven points in a primary vote.

In one poll, 60 percent of respondents said they believed the coalition would win, compared to 26 per cent predicting a Labor victory.

Undecided voters may yet determine the outcome however, although if the polls are accurate it appears the majority of undecided voters would have to settle on Labor for Howard to lose.

In his last major speech on Thursday, Howard said at the National Press Club that he was "a fallible human being like anybody else" who does not pretend to have made no mistakes during his eight-and-a-half years in office.

"But I would argue that I have got the big things right."

In a flurry of broadcast interviews Friday, Latham pressed him his message that he is ready to lead the country with a positive agenda for the future.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow