Labor keeps power in New South Wales

SYDNEY, Australia, AP

The Labor party maintained its sweep of Australian regional governments on Saturday by winning re-election in the most populous state, New South Wales. Mamdouh Habib, a former terrorist suspect held at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, did not win the district he contested as an independent candidate in the election, which was fought largely on local issues of roads, schools and train and bus services. With more than 70 percent of ballots counted, the incumbent government of Premier Morris Iemma had won enough votes to take a clear majority in state parliament, despite a statewide swing against Labor of more than 4 percent. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard, who is due to call elections later this year and is lagging Labor leader Kevin Rudd in opinion polls, did not immediately comment on the result.

The conservative coalition of the Liberal and National parties won some of the votes that swung away from Labor in New South Wales, but not enough to secure power. Under Australia’s preferential voting system, rising support for Green and independent candidates favored Labor.

New South Wales is home to about 6 million of Australia’s roughly 21 million people, most of whom live in Sydney and a handful of other cities. Sydney is a commerce and agricultural center. Mainstream political parties share similar economic policies, making utilities and services the key issues for voters. Labor holds power in all of Australia’s six states and two territories, while the Liberal-National has held power nationally for more than a decade. Egyptian-born Habib, 51, said he was standing to raise human rights issues and raise the profile of Australian Muslims, though he had little chance of success against a Labor incumbent with very strong local support. Habib won around 4 percent of votes in the Sydney suburban seat he contested, and said he had not expected to do any better.

“The reality is it is a safe Labor seat and people wanted someone with a proven track record,” Habib told The Associated Press.

“But it was important to get the message out that there are more issues than bus timetables, like race issues and youth unemployment and poverty,” he said.