Fake flyers derail Howard

By Greg Ansley

A rare drenching rain fell on Canberra yesterday as Prime Minister John Howard arrived for his final big push for victory in tomorrow's election.

With the rain came more bad polling news and - far more seriously - a scandal that drove his message aside and dominated what he had intended as an inspirational plea for support in a nationally televised address.

In Sydney the husbands of a retiring Liberal MP and the candidate standing as her replacement were implicated in the distribution of bogus flyers from a non-existent Islamic organisation lauding Labor support for terrorism and the Bali bombers.

A photograph of Gary Clark, husband of New Zealand-born MP Jackie Kelly, appeared on the front page of the Daily Telegraph trying to hide his face behind one of the flyers.

Greg Chijoff, the husband of succeeding Liberal candidate Karen Chijoff and a long-serving senior member of the party's New South Wales branch, has also been named, with state executive member Jeff Egan.

Their pamphlets are purported to have come from the non-existent "Islamic Australia Federation", thanking Labor for supporting the Bali bombers and opposing their unjust death sentences, praising it for allowing radical cleric Sheik Taj Aldin Alhilali to live in Australia, and lauding its support for the construction of a new mosque in the western Sydney seat of Lindsay.

Lindsay, held by Kelly since Howard's 1996 victory over Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, is one of the Government's most vulnerable seats in New South Wales.

The scandal could not have come at a worse time for Howard, with a Newspoll in the Australian giving Labor a clear lead in every mainland state except Western Australia, and a nationwide lead of 10 percentage points over the Government.

Even with this news, Howard had arrived at the National Press Club refusing to speculate on defeat, predicting victory for the Government, and firmly expressing his belief that he had been the best choice to lead the Government into the election.

He pointed to his record, slammed Labor for making no convincing case for change, and warned of serious risk to the nation's economy if Rudd was elected tomorrow.

He said he was proud of the transition of Australia from welfare state to an opportunity society, where national self-confidence was such that there were no longer perpetual seminars on national identity, instead a rejoicing that the nation was "gloriously and distinctively Australian".

But in question time his message was all but forgotten. The Lindsay flyer scandal dominated, reflecting outrage in the Islamic community, suggestions of racism within the Liberal Party, and demands for further investigations and punitive action.

Kelly had done little to help the cause after Labor members, reportedly alerted by furious Liberals, tracked down, photographed and confronted the group distributing the flyers.

After initially skirting questions of her husband's involvement, she later portrayed the production and distribution of the flyers as a bad-taste joke.

Labor did not share the humour, laying complaints with the Electoral Commission and the police. The Liberals also tried to slam the lid on it by expelling Egan from the party - Chijoff resigned last night - and making its own complaint to the commission. But the scandal buried Howard's last major opportunity to talk to Australia.

In response to a barrage of questions from reporters, he was forced to give assurances that no taxpayers' money had been used, that he condemned the flyers as outrageous, stupid, tasteless and offensive, and that the Liberal Party had no part whatsoever in their production or distribution. He refused to consider sacking Chijoff as candidate for Lindsay.

As reporters continued their interrogation, he snapped: "For heaven's sake, get a sense of proportion."

Not the last word the Prime Minister would have preferred.

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