Australian Prime Minister John Howard fended off speculation yesterday about the threat of a leadership challenge by his heir apparent, vowing to stay in his job as long as the Liberal Party wants him.
Treasurer Peter Costello initiated the speculation himself by refusing last week to rule out a challenge after opinion polls showed Howard's conservative government trailing a resurgent Labor opposition in the run-up to elections late this year. He refused to rule out a challenge again yesterday, saying he and Howard were "very good friends and colleagues, I can assure you of that."
A prominent Costello supporter, government parliamentary secretary Christopher Pyne, contributed to the controversy by telling a TV program a succession plan between Howard and Costello had been agreed upon.
Howard yesterday described the speculation as ridiculous, saying he had not discussed the leadership with Costello since announcing last year that he had decided against early retirement.
"My position last June when I indicated that I would continue as the party leader, was that I would remain the leader of the Liberal Party for so long as the party wanted me to and while it remained in the party's interest that I should," he told Channel Nine.
"That was my position last June, it's my position now, it will be my position when the election campaign starts, it will be my position on election day and I don't intend to alter in any way that because it's the truth," he said.
However, Howard admitted the dynamics had changed in the four months since new Labor leader Mark Latham was elected. He said he had no problem with Costello's responses to questions about leadership, and had never required people to rule out "having a go."
In other developments, Howard yesterday condemned a law passed by the nation's capital to allow gay couples to adopt children, signalling that his government may consider overturning the move.
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which administers Canberra, passed a law last month that allows homosexual and lesbian couples to adopt.
Howard did not rule out the possibility his government would block the law, expected to take effect next month.
"I'm against gay adoption, just as I'm against gay marriage," Howard told a Sydney radio station.
Howard was reported to be considering using his government's little-used power over the nation's two territories -- the ACT and the Northern Territory -- to block the newly-passed law.