The world is his oyster right now ... Prime Minister John Howard during question time
The world is his oyster right now ... Prime Minister John Howard during question time

PM?s star shines brightest

By DOUG CONWAY AAP Senior Writer

SYDNEY: Sporting champions, movie stars, business billionaires... no matter how brightly they dazzled Australia in 2004, none could hold a candle to a balding, bespectacled, hard-of-hearing senior citizen with questions over his credibility and a history of professional rejection.

John Howard now casts the biggest shadow in the land after a fourth straight election victory underlined his latterday history of political success.

Critics wish he would do what other 65-year-olds do ? retire.

His patient understudy, Peter Costello, wouldn't try to talk him out of that, either.

But Mr Howard is indisputably at the height of his political powers.

He has overtaken Bob Hawke as Australia's second longest serving prime minister.

For the first time in 23 years he will run a government with an outright Senate majority, its legislative muscle unfettered by any combination of opposition, independents or minor parties.

Not since his political hero Sir Robert Menzies half a century ago has a government increased its majority twice in a row.

Mr Howard is no stranger to rejection by electorates ? NSW and Federal ? or by his own party, famously describing himself after one dumping as 'Lazarus with a triple bypass'.

Opinion polls indicate almost half of Australians believe he deliberately misled them over the invasion of Iraq, and 60 per cent felt the same about the 'children overboard' affair.

But delivering economic good times to one of the world's most pragmatic peoples helped overcome those concerns and win the October election.

John Howard is, without question, the biggest winner in the Australian public eye in 2004.

So much so that in politics anyone riding the Howard horse was a winner, too ? even Mr Costello, whose thwarted aspirations for the top job so recently led him to choke back tears at a news conference.

Now that prize seems 'just around the corner', as parents say when driving their fidgety kids to a holiday house.

Unless, of course, Mr Howard enjoys his pre-eminence so much he wants to hang on even longer ... stranger things have happened.

Labor's consolation prize was to retain control of every state and territory government, after Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope confirmed these scarifying times are also safe ones for incumbents.

It was back to the drawing board, though, for the biggest loser of all, Opposition leader Mark Latham.

He learned many things from his disastrous electoral debut just 10 months into his new job, including the unpalatable truths that interest rates sway Australian voters more than Iraqi civilian deaths, and that placing Tasmanian forests ahead of Tasmanian jobs is no recipe for electoral success.

Many political pundits see Labor spending at least two more terms in the wilderness.

Mr Latham may have youth on his side, but intense in-fighting since Labor's election disaster has left his position anything but certain.

The Australian Democrats, who can now plan parliamentary party meetings in a phone box big enough for four, virtually tossed a coin to see whether Andrew Bartlett should stay on as leader; he lost to Lyn Allison without a formal vote.

Independent MP Tony Windsor was left high and dry after his allegations that Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and Nationals Senator Sandy Macdonald tried to bribe him into vacating his seat were denied by the supposed go-between, Tamworth businessman Greg Maguire.

Former NSW attorney-general Jeff Shaw, charged with drink driving after crashing his car near his home, resigned from the Supreme Court bench amid mystery over how he happened to leave hospital with a vial of blood which should have been in the possession of police.

Ian Thorpe's blood is worth bottling, for different reasons.

A golden double in Athens made him Australian sport's most bankable commodity ? our most successful Olympian of all time in our most successful ever team. Thorpe had to shine brightly to draw sporting attention away from drug-tainted cyclists, not to mention 'Lay Down Sally' Robbins, the rower who won a place in sporting infamy after downing tools mid-race, and rugby league's Bulldogs, winners on the field who wrought inestimable damage off it during a pre-season trip to Coffs Harbour.

Thorpe may soon be challenged as sport's golden boy by the nation's brightest new star, 23-year-old cricketer Michael Clarke.

Clarke went off- shore (to India) to get his Test career started, just as two of Australia's business giants did to consolidate theirs.

Rupert Murdoch successfully moved his News Corp's corp- orate base from Adelaide to the US, and Frank Lowy merged his far-flung interests into a single entity which became the biggest shopping centre empire in the world.

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