- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

SYDNEY, Australia — He has been called foul-mouthed, prone to physical violence and anti-American. But Australia’s new opposition leader, Mark Latham, is expected to pose a serious challenge to Prime Minister John Howard in elections this year.

Mr. Latham, 42, grew up in subsidized housing in a poor suburb of Sydney and talks repeatedly of “climbing the ladder of opportunity.”

“The problem is that the Howard government has been taking out the rungs,” he said on Jan. 29 in his first speech after taking over as opposition leader. “I want to put them back.”

Known for boundless energy and aggression — he once broke the arm of a taxi driver who tried to run away with his briefcase — Mr. Latham has reawakened the Australian Labor Party that had grown sleepy under his predecessor, Simon Crean.

He also has been picking his battles carefully in confronting the ruling Liberals — who are in fact conservative.

Instead of challenging the government on such issues as terror, security and refugees where the ruling Liberals are considered unbeatable, Mr. Latham focuses on bread-and-butter issues such as health, education and taxes.

Mr. Howard, a staunch defender of the Bush administration’s Iraq policies, may find it hard to keep voters focused on security as the major election issue, analysts said.

“[Security] is not something new that he is going to be promising,” said Katherine Gelber, a politics professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “On the other hand, he will have to respond to the domestic issues that Latham raises like health and education.”

Liberal Party legislator Ross Cameron agreed. “I think that it’s unarguable that Latham has made the [Labor Party] more competitive and people are more open to listen to the [party] under his leadership,” he said.

Mr. Howard, who seemed unassailable just three months ago, now is trailing in opinion polls. The Labor Party, which had been mired in internal wrangling, was leading the Liberals by six percentage points in a poll released this month.

The Liberal Party formed a coalition with the Nationals after the March 1996 elections, ending 13 years of Labor government, and elected Mr. Howard prime minister. The government won re-election in October 1998 and again in November 2001.

After the 2001 elections, Mr. Howard, 64, offered to hand over leadership to his deputy and party treasurer, Peter Costello, but reneged on the deal. Analysts say that episode may return to haunt him in this year’s elections.

“In Australia, when you are 65, it’s time for you to go. Latham has that advantage over Howard even if his message is not that different,” said Kim Beazley, a former Labor Party leader.

Australia has no limit on the number of terms a prime minister can serve.

Mr. Latham, however, is playing the age issue carefully. “Rather than talking about how old Howard is, he wants to say that the prime minister has been in politics far too long and that his ideas are stale and past their use-by date,” said John Warhurst, a political science professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.

However, Mr. Howard, a formidable politician with almost 30 years in Parliament, and his party are skilled at exploiting opponents’ vulnerabilities, and they could make the running tough for Mr. Latham.

For instance, when the Labor Party questioned a free-trade agreement recently negotiated with the United States in Parliament, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer accused the party of being anti-American, recalling Mr. Latham’s past comments.

Mr. Latham criticized President Bush in a February 2003 speech in Parliament, calling him “flaky, dangerous and incompetent.”

With elections expected in the second half of the year, Mr. Latham has many pitfalls to avoid. Any misspeaking by him or lack of unity within the party easily could doom his prospects and ensure Labor’s fourth consecutive election defeat, analysts say.

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