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Australia Reelects Premier Who Kept Refugees at Bay

Politics: Firm approach to asylum seekers and strong support for U.S. anti-terrorism campaign are credited in John Howard's victory.

November 11, 2001|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Prime Minister John Howard, propelled by a hard-nosed campaign to prevent Afghan and Iraqi refugees from entering Australia, handily won reelection to a third term Saturday.

Howard, who appeared to be in political trouble just six months ago, turned around his fortunes with his harsh approach to asylum seekers and strong support for the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The prime minister defeated Labor Party leader Kim Beazley, whose attempts to focus on education and the economy were swamped by public concern over the rising number of Muslim refugees seeking a haven in Australia.

Beazley conceded defeat less than five hours after the polls closed. He said his party had made a strong showing, given voters' natural inclination to back the incumbent during a time of war.

"It is difficult to conduct a campaign in the background of an ongoing war," Beazley said, adding that he will step down as opposition leader. "Governments around the globe have been the beneficiaries of massive support."

Howard claimed victory minutes later and acknowledged that the war in Afghanistan played a part in his reelection.

"All of us are deeply conscious of the changes that have come over the world and therefore our own nation since the terrible events in the United States on the 11th of September," he told a crowd of supporters. "Those terrible deeds were done to us as much as they were done to our American friends. We have a duty as part of the free world to respond to them."

With more than 80% of the returns counted, Howard's ruling coalition, which includes his Liberal Party and its junior partner, the National Party, appeared to have won at least 80 of the 150 seats in Parliament's lower house, more than enough to assure his continuation as prime minister.

Beazley's party appeared to have won at least 65 seats. Australians also selected lawmakers for 40 of the 76 seats in the Senate. Voting is compulsory in Australia, and turnout was more than 95%.

Until the 1940s, Australia pursued a "whites only" immigration policy, but in recent decades the nation of 19 million has become a more multiethnic society, with a large number of immigrants from Asia. Whites still make up more than 90% of the population.

Some of Howard's opponents accused him of waging a divisive campaign that played on the fears of Australians after the terrorist attack on the United States.

In August, Howard's political fortunes began to turn when an Indonesian boat carrying 433 refugees, most from Afghanistan, sank in the Indian Ocean on its way to Australia.

The Norwegian cargo ship Tampa rescued the asylum seekers and headed for Christmas Island, an Australian outpost more than 200 miles south of Indonesia.

The prime minister, however, took a tough stance and refused to let the boat dock at the island, where the refugees could have requested asylum. Howard swore that the asylum seekers would never set foot on Australian soil and sent commandos to board the Norwegian ship.

The move was widely condemned by the international community, but Howard's poll numbers began to soar.

Eventually, the refugees were transferred to an Australian navy vessel and most were taken to the distant Pacific island of Nauru, where they were put up in a detention center.

Later, a dozen more Indonesian boats carrying refugees were intercepted and asylum seekers transferred to Australia-funded refugee camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Australia accepts 12,000 refugees a year. Howard called the boat people "queue jumpers."

Most of the refugees are fleeing repressive regimes that are enemies of the West, including the Taliban in Afghanistan and President Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. Howard said Australia has to be careful in accepting asylum seekers because terrorists could be hiding among them.

The prime minister has been among the staunchest backers of the U.S-led anti-terror coalition and has pledged at least 1,500 soldiers to the campaign.

As prime minister, Howard has some discretion in deciding when to call an election. In October, with his popularity on the rise, he set the vote for Saturday.

A full-page newspaper ad last week summed up the message of his campaign. A stern-looking Howard stood with clenched fists on a podium and beneath were his words: "We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."

The prime minister survived a last-minute fiasco that raised questions about his credibility. Last month, he claimed that asylum seekers were so callous that they threw their own children into the sea to force the Australian navy to rescue them.

His defense minister said the government had a videotape of the refugees throwing children into the water. But when the video was finally released Thursday, the only people landing in the water were adults who jumped in. The dilapidated boat later sank. Howard blamed his misstatement on information he had received from the navy.

With polls showing that 70% of the voters backed Howard's hard line on refugees, Beazley chose to support it too.

"I think it's unfortunate that people come to Australia when they are not supposed to be here," said Sydney voter Joy Archer, 32, after casting her ballot. "I don't think Australia can afford people coming here without proper papers. We are overcrowded as it is."

But some voters were disappointed in both Howard and Beazley for attacking refugees who have nowhere to go.

"We are a wealthy country. We should take our share," said Will MacAdams, a Qantas flight attendant in Sydney. "These people are being demonized."

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