March 2, 2006

Just another work day as Australia PM marks decade

By James Grubel

CANBERRA (Reuters) - For Australian Prime Minister John
Howard, it was just another day at the office on Thursday as he
marked a decade in power, standing in parliament confidently
fending off attacks on his conservative government.

"I'm working today," Howard told reporters. He said he
still had plenty of energy and enthusiasm for the job, giving
little hope to his ambitious heir apparent, Treasurer Peter
Costello, that he would retire any time soon.

Howard was first elected to power on March 2, 1996, and his
ruling Liberal Party is cashing in on the anniversary with a
series of high-priced functions which it hopes will raise up to
A$1 million ($740,000) for its campaign coffers.

But Howard, who has urged government lawmakers to ensure
the celebrations remain low-key and focused on the next 10
years, spent the day in much the same way he has spent the rest
of his tenure -- at his desk.

A fit 66-year-old who began Thursday with his regular early
morning walk, Howard has repeatedly refused to say if he will
lead his party into the next election, due in late 2007, but
has anointed Costello to replace him if he falls under a bus.

"If I were to go under that bus -- and I am very careful
crossing the roads -- (Peter Costello is) logically the person
to take my place and it's a widely held view in the party,"
Howard told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Howard gave two radio interviews, launched a book about
himself and his government, and conducted a news conference
about pregnancy counseling -- all before noon -- then fronted
up for his regular parliamentary grilling in question time.

He batted off a question about a judicial inquiry into
claims that Australian monopoly wheat exporter AWB had paid
kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq under the United
Nations' food-for-oil program.

The center-left Labor opposition has asked 110 questions in
parliament about AWB kickback claims as it targets the
government over what it knew about the payments.

"It is a world record in futility," Howard said, adding
that parliament must await the outcome of the AWB kickbacks

Labor described the anniversary as a sad day for Australia,
chiding Howard's government for a decade of hubris and
mis-management. Opposition treasury spokesman Wayne Swan
derided the government as "tired, lazy and indulgent."

"Sadly for the Australian people, 10 years of the highest
taxing government in our history has given all of those
taxpayers a much bigger hangover," Swan said.

And later on Thursday about 500 unionists protested outside
a ritzy Sydney hotel where Howard was attending another dinner
in his honor, which up to 1,000 key business leaders have paid
A$1,000 a head to attend.

A strong police presence kept the noisy protesters well
back from the venue of the dinner.

Howard is only the second Australian prime minister to
notch up 10 years in office. Robert Menzies, his political hero
who founded the Liberal Party, served more than 18 years as
prime minister between 1939 and his retirement in 1966.