Miss Universe, Olympians in Australia poll bout
Updated: 2004-09-01 16:05
The first face-to-face bout in Australia's election campaign was staged inside an airport hangar on Wednesday with prime ministerial contenders sparring with Miss Universe and hundreds of Olympians before a phalanx of cameras.
In a Hollywood-style welcome home for Australia's Olympic team inside a Sydney Airport hangar, Prime Minister John Howard and opposition Labor leader Mark Latham met for the first time in the fledgling campaign ahead of a knife-edge Oct. 9 election.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard (R), Olympic gold medallist Ryan Bayley (2nd-R), opposition leader Mark Latham (2nd-L) and former Australian athlete Margaret Jackson stand at the door of an airplane during a welcome home ceremony for the national Olympic team at Sydney Airport September 1, 2004. The first face-to-face bout in Australia's election campaign was staged inside an airport hangar on Wednesday with prime ministerial contenders sparring with hundreds of Olympians before a phalanx of cameras. [Reuters]
Howard scored well for photo opportunities with gold medal athletes, but Latham turned in a winning performance in pressing the flesh with not only athletes but their families.
"On a day like this let's put politics aside and honor these people in the right and proper way," said Latham when asked if it was cynical that both he and Howard, the nation's Olympic patron, greeted Australia's most successful Olympic team.
But the jockeying for political mileage in the early days of a six-week campaign, which will focus on honesty, security and the economy, was blatant.
To the patriotic strains of "I Still Call Australia Home," the theme song for the national airline Qantas, a 747 aircraft painted in aboriginal dreaming colors, depicting green and blue kangaroos and rainbow serpents, taxied inside the hangar.
A sprightly 65-year-old Howard led Latham up the stairs to be first to greet two gold medallists, cyclist Ryan Bailey and swimmer Jodie Henry, quickly spinning around with a smile for the cameras. Once down on the official dais, Howard made a bee-line for Australia's most famous Olympian, swimmer Ian Thorpe.
Latham, 43, seemed to struggle to keep up with Howard, a veteran of photo-opportunities after eight-and-half years as prime minister. But the young contender scored earlier, posing for photos and a chat with Australia's Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins, on hand to welcome the Olympians home.
Howard, a seasoned politician with 30 years of parliament under his belt, seemed to stumble with his speech, which stuck to the athletes. In contrast, Latham linked his welcome home speech to one of his election themes, investing in Australia's future.
"Your performance proves something important to us as a nation ... when Australians put their mind to it and we invest in youth and talent and the future we can be the equal of any nation," Latham said.
Once the ceremony ended and the cameras were turned off, Howard quickly departed, but Latham remained, pressing the flesh -- a style of home-spun electioneering he has promised in this poll.
He even stooped down to sign 8-year-old John Radnell's small notebook: "To John, Best Wishes, Mark Latham." A reporter nearby quipped: "He's too young to vote."