Wed, Dec 22, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Howard reaches milestone

AFP , SYDNEY

John Howard yesterday became Australia's second-longest serving prime minister and said he will remain the public's servant "in the years ahead."

Amid speculation about when he will step down, Howard, 65, passed former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke's milestone of eight years, nine months and 11 days.

He is now second only to his political hero, conservative icon and founder of the Liberal Party Sir Robert Menzies who was in office for 16 years, one month and eight days.

Howard, who has cautioned his colleagues against triumphalism following his resounding election win in October, said he planned to celebrate with a quiet family dinner at home. He said he was enjoying the "immense privilege" of serving the Australian people.

"I'm there as their servant and I will continue to be governed by that frame of mind in the years ahead," he told reporters.

Howard's heir apparent, Treasurer Peter Costello, was frustrated last year when Howard decided to remain in the top job beyond his 64th birthday. He refused to predict how long Howard would stay on. Costello congratulated Howard on winning four elections, saying it made him "Australia's second greatest prime minister."

But Howard's close personal friend and ally, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, played down the prospect of an attempt to break Menzies' record.

"I think for him to serve for another decade, even John Howard might start to get a bit tired then," Downer told ABC radio.

Few would have believed Howard capable of reaching the milestone in 1989, when his political career was at its lowest ebb.

Ousted as opposition leader two years after a crushing election defeat, Howard was labelled one of the most unpopular leaders in the Liberal Party's history. The prime minister himself quipped at the time that a comeback would be "like Lazarus with a triple by-pass."

But the former solicitor persevered, regaining the Liberal leadership in 1995 and defeating Labor's Paul Keating a year later.

His leadership has been marked by determination to ignore opinion polls and pursue his own strategy on contentious issues such as supporting the US-led Iraq war, cracking down on asylum-seekers and refusing to apologize to Aborigines for past injustices.

A poll published in The Australian newspaper yesterday showed Howard's popularity remains undiminished since his October election victory, with 60 percent of respondents naming him as preferred prime minister compared to 24 percent for Labor leader Mark Latham.

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