Howard puts his best foot forward amid the cheers and jeers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2007, 12:00am


In Sydney it is supposed to be a potent symbol of his political longevity and physical health. At 68, Australian Prime Minister John Howard is no spring chicken, but he keeps fit with a daily power walk. Each day he rises before dawn and strides out purposefully, dressed in one of a number of spiffy track suits, some of them in Australia's national colours of green and gold.

But since the federal election campaign kicked off last month, Mr Howard's daily constitutional has turned into a circus.

Barely a day goes by without his stroll being ambushed by satirists, lobby groups or members of the public, some of them barracking for the opposition Labor Party and its leader, Kevin Rudd.

As his morning perambulation turns into a microcosm of the increasingly acrimonious election campaign, Mr Howard has been variously praised and heckled.

Earlier this week the prime minister set his usual cracking pace as he emerged just after 6am from Kirribilli House, his official residence on the shores of Sydney harbour.

A young couple offered him some encouragement in a typically robust Australian manner, urging him to 'kick Rudd's bum' at the November 24 poll.

A group of tradesmen renovating a house also gave Mr Howard a boost, with comments which tapped into the government's claim that Mr Rudd is playing 'me, too' politics by adopting many of the government's policies.

'Is Mr Rudd going to walk behind you and copy your walk as well,' one of the men asked Mr Howard. 'He won't be able to keep up with you, bro,' another said.

But the prime minister has to take the rough with the smooth, and later on in his walk he was shadowed by an animal welfare protester dressed in a giant sheep costume.

The sheep, named Lucy, is part of a campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to protest against the live export of Australian sheep to the Middle East and North Africa.

Ominously for Mr Howard, lately the jeers seem to be outnumbering the cheers. He has been abused not just in Sydney but around the country as he pounds the campaign trail.

In Adelaide, he was marching along the banks of the River Torrens when a middle-aged man in a rowing boat yelled colourful abuse at him,

During a walk around the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, in Canberra, another member of the public yelled: 'You're a disgrace, John.'

Mr Howard ignored him, but a fellow walker sprang to his defence, shouting back: 'Shut up, you idiot.'

The fact that members of the public can get so close to the prime minister is a testament to Australia's comparative openness.

Unlike President George W. Bush, who travels in endless motorcades guarded by black-clad Secret Service agents, security around the prime minister is remarkably relaxed.

He is trailed by minders from the Protective Service, but their presence is not too heavy-handed.

Just as well, given that his exercise regime has been interrupted by a team of deeply irreverent television satirists.

In Sydney recently he was accosted by three members of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's satirical revue The Chaser's War on Everything dressed as white rabbits.

'We know you need to pull a rabbit out of your hat for the election, so here's a few for you,' they said - a reference to his reputation for clinching victory with 11th hour vote-winning issues.

Mr Howard needs all the white rabbits he can find at the moment. He has been trailing Labor for months and looks headed for a humiliating defeat in just over two weeks' time. If he does lose, at least there will be one small consolation - he'll finally be able to go for a walk in peace.