Howard Re-Elected in Australia
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Filed at 5:06 p.m. ET
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Prime Minister John Howard and his conservative government won a third term in national elections Saturday, capping a stunning political comeback fueled largely by the Australian leader's efforts to keep refugees out of the country.
``I cannot express to you the sense of honor and privilege I feel once again being elected as prime minister of the greatest country in the world,'' Howard told cheering supporters at a Sydney hotel after opposition Labor party leader Kim Beazley conceded defeat and resigned his post.
The prime minister, who has shifted Australia's focus from Asia to the United States and Europe and emphasized support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism, also warned that big challenges lay ahead in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
``Those terrible deeds were done to us as much as they were done to our American friends,'' he said. ``We have a duty to respond to them.''
With more than 80 percent of the vote counted, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Web site said Howard's Liberal Party had won 68 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament and its junior partner, the National Party, took 12 seats, giving the coalition a majority.
Labor won 67 seats and independent candidates won 3 seats, the ABC reported, based on Australian Electoral Commission figures.
Howard's policy of turning away refugee boats became a central plank in his campaign along with his staunch support for U.S.-led military strikes against Afghanistan.
After lagging in opinion polls all year, Howard's popularity began improving in late August when he vowed that 433 mostly Afghan asylum-seekers rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry by a Norwegian freighter would never set foot on Australian soil.
Australian commandos boarded the freighter, beginning a standoff with Indonesia and Norway over who should accept the asylum seekers. The tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru eventually agreed to accept most of the refugees for processing -- with Australia footing the bill.
Almost 2,000 asylum seekers on about a dozen boats have since been turned back by the navy or shipped to detention camps built by Australia in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, two impoverished Pacific island nations that are major recipients of Australian aid.
While barring asylum seekers has earned Australia international criticism, opinion polls have shown that more than 70 percent of Australians support the policy.
Beazley also backed it, and the immigrant issue overshadowed the Labor leader's attempts to promote his agenda of tax reform and increased funding for education, health care and research.
Howard's immigration stance also took the wind out of the sails of the right-wing One Nation Party and its maverick leader Pauline Hanson, who made headlines in the late 1990s by advocating a ban on Asian immigration. Hanson's party did not win a single seat in the lower house, and she appeared unlikely to succeed in her bid for a Senate seat.
Howard insisted Saturday that the turnaround in voter sentiment began before he adopted the hard-line stance on asylum seekers, and there were voices critical of the policy.
``The refugee issue has been very badly handled,'' said Bob Smeaton, who cast his ballot in the capital, Canberra. ``I don't think it's in any way true to the Australian spirit, the spirit of allowing people a fair go and allowing people to have an opportunity in this country.''
But key issues on which Beazley differed sharply from Howard -- reconciliation with Australia's indigenous Aborigines, a move to dump the British Queen as symbolic ruler, and relations with Asia -- were pushed aside by the attention to immigration policy.
Beazley also said the atmosphere surrounding the international campaign against terror also had a role in his defeat. ``It is an extraordinary difficult thing to conduct an election campaign against a background of an ongoing war and in circumstances where people feel a great sense of insecurity,'' he said.
Beazley had called for more debate on whether Australia should sever ceremonial ties with Queen Elizabeth II. Howard is a staunch monarchist.
Howard has also refused to issue a formal apology to Aborigines for their suffering and has swung the focus of foreign policy toward Europe and particularly the United States, while Beazley called for closer ties with Asia.