Thu, Sep 13, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Howard denies party wants him out

NOT GONE YET Despite trailing his Labor opponent in the polls and rumors of rifts in his party, the Australian prime minister says he will seek a new term. Then he would retire

AP AND AFP , CANBERRA

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday he will retire before the end of his next three-year term if he wins elections this year.

"I would ... certainly form the view well into my term that it would make sense for me to retire," Howard, 68, told ABC TV.

The prime minister had refused to indicate when he might quit since he ruled out retirement shortly before his 64th birthday. He is seeking election for a fifth three-year term.

He announced his retirement plans after heading off rumblings of a leadership challenge yesterday and warning colleagues that replacing him weeks before an election would be "a sign of panic."

Howard stated his case for remaining prime minister with an election due this year at a meeting of lawmakers of his ruling Liberal Party at Parliament House.

"There was absolutely no evidence in that party meeting of any desire on the part of the party for any change in the current leadership team," Howard told Sydney radio 2GB.

Polls throughout the year indicate Howard is leading his 11-year-old coalition government to a landslide defeat.

Former supporters are saying the 68-year-old political veteran should retire, while the media has reported a series of leaks about a rift within the ruling center-right coalition over his leadership.

Howard confirmed that he had asked Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, a trusted ally, to canvass the opinions of senior ministers last week about whether they still supported him as leader despite the poor polling.

But he declined to say how many ministers opted for a change of leader.

Howard's likely successor and Liberal deputy, Peter Costello, snuffed out the potential for a leadership change ahead of the election by declaring his support for the team.

"The team and the program is the key to win this election," Costello, the treasurer, told reporters, referring to the leadership team and Howard's policy agenda. Howard was the leader of that team, he said.

Howard put would-be challengers on notice when he told reporters Tuesday that: "I have never run from a fight before and I don't intend to do so now."

Health Minister Tony Abbott said the ministers who attended the crisis meeting with Downer last week in a hotel room in Sydney near where Howard was hosting a summit of Pacific Rim leaders had agreed to stick with the leader as "the best bet for the government."

But a report in the Australian newspaper yesterday suggested that most of Howard's Cabinet wanted him to quit.

"Why did he ask for the soundings if he was not prepared to act on the conclusion?" an unnamed minister was quoted as asking.

The government has been rattled by a resurgent Labor challenge under opposition leader Kevin Rudd, with a Sydney Morning Herald poll this week giving Labor a 57 percent to 43 percent lead over the government.

The poll showed Rudd's personal approval rating had risen eight points to 67 percent, while Howard's remained steady at 50 percent.

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