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Australia’s prime minister appeals for better manners in Australia

By ROD McGUIRK

Associated Press Writer

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Easygoing Australians have never been known as slaves to etiquette. This year, Prime Minister John Howard is making an election issue out of civility.

Observers say Howard, who will seek a fourth term in elections expected later this year, is appealing to his conservative base. He also may be trying to highlight the contrasts with his chief rival, Labor Party leader Mark Latham, who is known for once having referred to a journalist as a prostitute.

“We are a less polite country now than we used to be,” Howard told the Southern Cross radio network Friday. “We do need more civility and more civility leads to a greater enjoyment of life.”

Howard, a bespectacled former lawyer who proudly describes himself as the nation’s most conservative leader, called for Australians’ right to freedom of self expression to be tempered by greater self-restraint, although he acknowledged he could not legislate good manners.

Howard’s push for better etiquette is a gamble. This is a nation, after all, whose former prime minister, Paul Keating, sparked outrage in the British press in 1992 when he touched a part of Queen Elizabeth II’s anatomy delicately referred to by media as the “lower back” during a royal visit.

Keating’s Dutch-born wife Anita was also berated by the British for failing to curtsy. The Keatings were unrepentant and Australians were largely bemused by the fuss.

Australian National University historian Jill Matthews said Howard’s concern about declining manners ignores a 150-year tradition of Australians celebrating the independent “larrikin,” a person who bucks authority and breaks rules.

“Larrikinism is minor bad behavior and it’s admirable and funny if you’re not the subject of it,” Matthews said. “The question is always how far is too far and I think the prime minister is now trying to draw a line in the sand for the purposes of placating his conservative constituency.”

Howard, 64, raised the issue Thursday in a speech outlining his fourth-term agenda for government. Latham, the 43-year-old Labor leader, may have something to do with it.

Latham’s reputation was tarnished by a 2001 scuffle in which he broke a taxi driver’s arm and an allegation that he punched a constituent in 1989. He notoriously referred to a journalist who called for more civility in public life in her newspaper column as a prostitute.

Latham has defended his use of crude language as a reflection of the low-income Sydney suburbs that he represents in parliament. Nonetheless, he promised to clean up his act when he was elected opposition leader late last year and largely has done so.

AP-ES-07-09-04 0425EDT



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