Prime Minister John Howard ended months of phoney election campaigning by announcing the date on Sunday when his Liberal-National coalition government will seek a fourth consecutive term in office.

"Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards? Who do you trust to lead the fight, on Australia's behalf, against international terrorism?" Howard said at Parliament House in the capital Canberra.

An election could have been held as late as 16 April 2005, but Howard has long said he would go to the polls before the end of 2004.

His eight-year-old old government has trailed Labor and its new-generation leader, Mark Latham, in recent opinion polls. But Howard was also behind in opinion polls before he was re-elected in November 2001.

Affordable mortgages

In Sydney, Latham said: "Australia needs a change of government. Australia needs to move to a new generation of national leadership."

Australian voters will now have six weeks of campaigning to decide whether to hand 65-year-old Howard another term or vote him out in favour of Labor and Latham, who is 22 years his junior.

"They are going to ask themselves which of these two blokes is more likely to keep my mortgage affordable ... that's far more important than the age difference between Mr Latham and myself," the incumbent said.

Opinion polls have shown the government running neck-and-neck with Labor on primary votes.

But Labor leads substantially on a two-party preferred basis, where minority party votes are distributed to major parties and ultimately decide elections.