March 20, 2007 / 6:01 AM / 10 years ago

Australian PM demands discipline as polls slump

<p>Australian Prime Minister John Howard gestures during a joint news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad March 17, 2007. Howard demanded unprecedented discipline from his lawmakers on Tuesday after a turbulent fortnight which saw him dump two ministers and sent pre-election opinion polls to a new low.Wathiq Khuzaie/Pool</p>

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister John Howard demanded unprecedented discipline from his lawmakers on Tuesday after a turbulent fortnight which saw him dump two ministers and sent pre-election opinion polls to a new low.

After 11 years in power and with an election due in late 2007, Howard has struggled to stem a surge of voter support for the center-left Labor opposition and its new leader, Kevin Rudd, who has opened a 22-point lead over the government. "We do have an enormous fight on our hands. We are a very long way behind," a spokesman quoted Howard as telling a closed meeting of government lawmakers on Tuesday.

"We need clean, clear air to focus on our positives, and we must exercise discipline like never before."

Howard's comments came after he dumped his second minister in a fortnight on Friday, sacking junior aging minister Santo Santoro from the northern state of Queensland for failing to properly disclose 72 share transactions.

Three other government lawmakers from Queensland remain under police investigation after raids on their offices as part of an investigation into the misuse of printing allowances.

Two weeks earlier, Howard accepted the resignation of former environment minister Ian Campbell over a meeting Campbell had with a disgraced lobbyist. A Newspoll in the Australian newspaper on Tuesday found support for Labor had hit a new high of 61 percent compared to 39 percent for the government on a two-party basis, where minority party votes are distributed to the two major parties.

The Newspoll also found Rudd, elected Labor Party leader in December, was ahead as preferred prime minister with 49 percent support to 36 percent for Howard.

The Australian said the results, if replicated at an election, would lead to scores of government lawmakers losing their seats in the biggest electoral whitewash in 30 years.

"The danger is that as the inexorable polls keep reeling out, those who thought they couldn't or wouldn't lose will begin to go to the other extreme and become convinced they can't win," the Australian's Political Editor Dennis Shanahan wrote on Tuesday.

"If the nervousness gets worse it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Rudd, however, played down the latest poll results, saying an election was still a long way off and Howard remained a tough opponent -- likening Labor's challenge to climbing Mount Everest.

"We have maybe got to the Everest base camp," Rudd told reporters. "Maybe we have just got to the lower levels of the rocks and we are climbing up."

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