Australia’s Labour claims election victory

Australia’s Labour party claimed victory in national elections on Saturday, signalling an end to 11 years of conservative government led by Prime Minister John Howard.

“On the numbers we are seeing tonight, Labour is going to form a government,” Labour’s deputy leader, Julia Gillard, told Australian television.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation television predicted on early counting that Labour, led by Kevin Rudd, would win at least 83 seats in the 150-seat Parliament, giving it a clear majority.

Howard was struggling to keep his own parliamentary seat in Sydney. If he loses his seat, he would be the first sitting Australian prime minister since 1929 to be dumped by voters.

Finance Minister Nick Minchin refused to accept a Labour victory, saying: “I don’t think there is enough to concede defeat.”

But Howard’s Communications Minister, Helen Coonan, said: “If this trend continues, we have to accept the voters think that it’s time for the prime minister to go.”

Howard (68) has trailed in opinion polls all year. A staunch United States ally committed to keeping Australian troops in Iraq, he offered voters Aus$34-billion in tax cuts, but few new policies.

Rudd has pledged to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and sign the Kyoto Protocol, further isolating Washington on both. The Mandarin-speaking former diplomat would also be expected to forge closer ties with China and other Asian nations.

Rudd (50) has offered voters a generational change, saying Howard is too old and tired to lead Australia.

Howard has criticised Rudd’s lack of experience, insisting a Labour government would be dominated by former trade unionists and would wreck an economy that has recorded 17 years of growth.

Howard once described himself as “Lazarus with a triple bypass” for his ability to be resurrected from political defeat. Even if he wins it will be his last hurrah, for he has promised to step down mid-term for his treasurer, Peter Costello. — Reuters

Additional reporting by Michael Perry in Sydney and Rob Taylor in Brisbane

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