Australian opposition parties branded Prime Minister John Howard a lame duck leader on Thursday following a surprise promise to stand down before his term ends if re-elected later this year.
Howard, 68, sought to end speculation over his future with an announcement late on Wednesday that he would hand over power to Treasurer Peter Costello late into his next three-year term if he wins a fifth consecutive election.
It was Howard's first public pronouncement during 11 years in power about when he intends to stand down, and came after he fended off pressure from some senior ministers to consider his future.
Opposition parties said Howard was desperate to silence any further discontent within his own Liberal Party ranks as the ruling conservative coalition trails badly in opinion polls.
"The Liberals on the eve of an election are desperate and have a short-term fix for the Liberal Party leadership but no long-term plan for the future of the country," said Kevin Rudd, leader of the main opposition Labor Party.
Rudd said Howard had lost the confidence of many of his senior colleagues.
Australian Greens senator Bob Brown said he found it "astonishing" that Howard was asking Australian voters to re-elect him in the knowledge that he intended to hand power to Costello.
"John Howard is making a mockery of the prime ministership," he said.
"Australian voters see that, and the pity of this is (that) it is a lame duck prime ministership and a lame duck government that's now presenting itself to the election."
The government has been rattled by a resurgent challenge from Labor under Rudd, with a Sydney Morning Herald poll this week giving Labor a 57 to 43 per cent lead over the government.
The poll also showed Rudd's personal approval rating had risen eight points to 67 percent, while Howard's remained steady at 50 per cent.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who hosted an unscheduled cabinet meeting last week to sound out colleagues about Howard's future, said the prime minister was simply being honest about his future plans.
"John Howard has levelled with people," Downer told Australian radio, saying the government was not "a one-man show".
"You've got the continuity of the Howard-Costello team well into the future, you've got no uncertainty about what's going to happen," he said.