Australian Prime Minister John Howard was thrown on the defensive yesterday just two days ahead of a general election after senior members of his party were implicated in a dirty tricks campaign.
Howard's Liberal Party admitted it had expelled two members for distributing fake flyers falsely linking the opposition Labor Party to Islamic extremist bombers.
As Labor claimed the pamphlets were part of an orchestrated dirty tricks plot, Howard interrupted campaigning to say that he and his party had no advance knowledge of them and had not authorized them.
The flyers, which the country's electoral watchdog and police are investigating, were circulated in the key marginal Sydney seat of Lindsay, which the Liberals are fighting to retain in tomorrow's election.
The husband of Lindsay's Liberal member of parliament Jackie Kelly and the spouse of her would-be Liberal successor, Karen Chijoff, both admitted taking part in the scheme and apologized. Greg Chijoff said he had quit the party.
"I condemn what happened. It was an unauthorized document. It does not represent my views. It was tasteless and offensive," Howard told the National Press Club as the scandal overshadowed his last major campaign address.
The pamphlets were purportedly issued by "The Islamic Australia Federation" and bore Labor's logo with a message thanking the party for supporting those convicted over the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people including 88 Australians, and for allowing a controversial Muslim cleric into Australia.
"I do not believe that the Australian Labor Party has ever had any sympathy for the Bali bombings and I thought it was an outrageous thing to say," Howard said.
"The party organization has dealt with it with lightning speed and great effectiveness," he said, stressing that the flyers were not part of his campaign.
Howard used his speech to list achievements during his 11 years in power -- low unemployment and inflation, fewer industrial disputes, job creation and the paying off of national debts.
The prime minister and other party grandees rejected opposition calls to name the party members expelled.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, however, reported that those kicked out were Kelly's husband Gary Clark and New South Wales state Liberal executive member Jeff Egan. Egan categorically denied issuing unauthorized material.
However Clark, whose wife is retiring at the election, admitted distributing the bogus campaign leaflets but said in a written apology his wife had no advance knowledge of them.
Greg Chijoff, the husband of Lindsay's Liberal candidate, also apologized and said his wife had no idea what he had been up to.
Howard said he believed that neither Kelly nor Karen Chijoff were aware of the plan.
Clark, Greg Chijoff and other party supporters were allegedly discovered by Labor supporters putting the leaflets in mailboxes.
The Daily Telegraph carried a picture apparently showing Clark hiding his face behind one of the pamphlets that Labor officials said were aimed at inciting anti-Muslim sentiment and turning voters against the opposition.
Labor leader and would-be prime minister Kevin Rudd said the flyers were indicative of the Liberals' desperation and called on Howard to reveal which officials knew of the flyers.
"Mr Howard has to explain how this occurred," he told Adelaide commercial radio 5AA.