Mud-slinging backfires on Howard

By Greg Ansley

CANBERRA - As Australian Prime Minister John Howard basks in the diplomatic glow of the land of the rising sun, his fortunes at home are increasingly being dimmed by an ominous political eclipse.

In Tokyo today Howard will sign an important defence declaration with Japan that will further advance Australia's ties with the major North Asia power, albeit with some concerns from China. But he will return home to more grim news on his prospects of winning a fifth term in the elections to be held this year.

Two new polls yesterday showed Labor has gained a massive lead over Howard's ruling Coalition, with both polls also demonstrating strong preference for new Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd as prime minister.

Worse for Howard, the Morgan and ACNielsen polls clearly indicated that voters have been unmoved - even annoyed - by the Government's unrelenting attack on Rudd for his three meetings with disgraced former Western Australian premier Brian Burke in 2005.

Burke was jailed after the notorious 1980s WA Inc scandal involving disastrous deals between the state Labor Government and businessmen such as the also-jailed Alan Bond, but later bounced back as a corporate fixer with astonishing, and corrupt, influence in the state's present Labor Administration.

Howard's attack backfired when one of his own senior ministers, Senator Ian Campbell, was forced to resign from his portfolio after confessing to meeting Burke.

And while the Government is relishing Rudd's latest discomfort - the sacking of frontbencher Kevin Thomson following a reference he wrote for fugitive drug trafficker and crime boss Tony Mokbel - three Government MPs are awaiting the outcome of Federal Police raids involving alleged electoral fraud.

Australians have not been impressed by the mud-slinging.

Focus still remains on the standard fuel for election victory: economic management, security, and the key suburban concerns of health, employment, education and social issues, with the addition this year of water and climate change.

"As I've pointed out on many occasions, the election will be fought on who is best to manage the economy - interest rates, taxation, as well as industrial relations - not who talks to Brian Burke," pollster Gary Morgan said.

ACNielsen pollster John Stirton gave a similar view in the Sydney Morning Herald after his company's poll appeared in Fairfax Newspapers.

"These findings suggest a resounding yawn from voters about the Burke affair," he told the SMH. "The Government's thrown everything at them and the voters have thought there's not much to it."

The ACNielsen poll of 1400 voters was compiled late last week as the Government hammered Rudd over his Burke meetings. The survey should have picked any move away from the Opposition as a result. Instead, it gave Labor a commanding lead and said more than four-fifths of voters did not care about the Burke affair, regardless of whether they believed Rudd had been telling the whole truth about his meetings with the corrupt lobbyist.

The ACNielsen poll showed Labor with 69 per cent of the two-party preferred vote that determines victory under Australia's system of preferential voting, well ahead of the Government's 39 per cent.

Morgan found an almost identical result - a record 61.5 per cent for Labor, 38.5 per cent for the Opposition.

ACNielsen also said that Labor's primary vote has leaped to 50 per cent - its highest level since April 1993, just after the Labor Prime Minister at the time, Paul Keating, thrashed Liberal contender John Hewson. The Coalition's primary support remained steady at 35 per cent.

Rudd's popularity has also continued to climb, with 53 per cent of respondents preferring him as prime minister - increasing his lead over Howard from 5 per cent to 14 per cent in a month, and equalled in the poll's history only by Howard's standing after he defeated Keating in 1996.

Further, 83 per cent said their view of Rudd had not been affected by the Burke affair, despite 53 per cent believing the Opposition Leader had been only "partly truthful" and 10 per cent disbelieving completely his explanations of the meetings.

Morgan found a similar plunge in primary support for the Government, falling to a six-year nadir of 33 per cent. Labor's primary support slipped a tiny 1 per cent, to 51.5 per cent.

"Howard's attempt to prolong his attack on Rudd by asking Campbell to resign for meeting with Burke last year appears to have failed to have an affect on voting intention," Morgan said.

The message also seems to be getting across to punters. Centrebet said yesterday that a surge of money had seen Rudd reach his shortest price ever, at A$1.77, forcing Howard out to A$1.95 to stay as PM.

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