As Australia's marathon six-week election campaign enters the final stretch before a weekend ballot, the contenders to lead the nation were set to clash on Wednesday in last-minute bids to win valuable green votes.
CANBERRA, Australia As Australia's marathon six-week election campaign enters the final stretch before a weekend ballot, the contenders to lead the nation were set to clash on Wednesday in last-minute bids to win valuable green votes.
Australia's Prime Minister John Howard will unveil his plan to preserve virgin, or old-growth, forests in the southern island state of Tasmania, while opposition Labor leader Mark Latham gives a crucial final national address in Canberra.
Opinion polls show the conservative government, seeking a fourth straight term, with a slim lead over center-left Labor, but the growing influence of the Greens party has forced both sides to place more importance on environmental issues.
Howard said the election result could be very tight and could be decided by preferences from the Greens, which currently have three elected representatives and which opinion polls show have about seven percent support, by far the most of any minor party.
Politicians rarely win an outright majority in Australia's elections, in which casting a ballot is compulsory for the 13 million voters who must number candidates on ballot papers in order of preference. In a system that usually favous major parties, preferences from minor parties are distributed until a winner is declared.
"If you look at the recent polls, we may be ahead, according to them, on the primary vote but we are getting very few Green preferences," Howard told Australian radio.
"It Could Go Against Us"
"And if the flow of Green preferences is as solid as is forecast in those polls, well, the result could be very tight and it could go against us," Howard said.
Analysts estimate Labor will win at least 75 percent of Greens preferences.
Both leaders face the problem of balancing the preservation of the forests on the island of Tasmania with the protection of jobs. Labor was accused of selling out the timber industry with a A$800 million (US$576 million) package released on Monday.
Latham promised a "rigorous scientific assessment" ahead of a report by an independent panel by July 1, 2005. Labor would then legislate to protect all areas deemed as worthy and logging operations would be static while the assessment was carried out.
Latham said Labor would also establish a multimillion dollar fund to create new opportunities and help the industry move to sustainable practices.
Howard said the government's forests policy would be based upon "a balance of growth, jobs, and care for the environment," but would not match Labor's A$800 million commitment. "It will be something that does pay proper regard to the jobs (of) people in areas of the economy where there aren't many alternatives," Howard said.
The economy, one of the industrialized world's strongest, has been the main issue during the six-week campaign, but health, education, and the environment have also been concerns for voters, along with national security and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
The election has attracted international attention because it precedes the U.S. presidential vote on Nov. 2 and a British election, widely expected to be called in May or June, in which security and the war on terror are expected to be main themes.
Latham will make a final national pitch to voters when he speaks at the National Press Club on Wednesday. Howard will address the same club on Thursday.