August 2, 2010 / 3:31 AM / 9 years ago

Australia election set for neck-and-neck finish

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Support for Australia’s government has fallen sharply, polls show, making the August 21 election likely to be decided by marginal seats where voters are focussed on the divisive issues of mining tax, climate and immigration.

Leader of the Australian Greens party, Senator Bob Brown, walks past applauding voters as he arrives at the party's federal election campaign launch event in Canberra August 1, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

The ruling Labor party is now level with the conservative opposition with only three weeks left of the campaign, a Newspoll survey in the Australian newspaper showed on Monday.

“I wake up some days and go, let’s fire up, let’s get more determined and that’s what I’ve done today,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard told Sydney radio after waking to a headline “Poll at 50:50.”

Even more alarming for Gillard, who only took office in June, a Nielsen poll on Saturday showed support for her party had dived six percentage points to 48 percent, and the opposition, led by Tony Abbott, with an election-winning 52 percent.

Gillard, who has seen Labor’s support plunge after it held a commanding seven point lead last month, pledged to do away with a stage-managed and risk averse re-election campaign and talk directly to voters about issues such as jobs, schools, hospitals and the economy.

“I’m desperate to make sure that Australians in this election campaign get to hear from me,” she said.

Defeat for Labor would sink a planned 30 percent tax on iron ore and coal mining, moves to introduce carbon-trading to fight climate change and a planned $33 billion (20 billion pounds)-plus broadband network.

A victory by the conservative opposition would also see tougher border security, with the reopening of South Pacific island detention camps for asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Whether Labor is re-elected for a second term could rest on a handful of marginal seats around the country, where the mining tax, climate policy and asylum seeker issues resonate.

There is a prospect of a protest vote in mining towns against the government’s resource tax, even after it was watered down from 40 percent to 30 percent and limited to iron ore and coal.

“The feeling out in the community is that Gillard’s (tax) compromise will save jobs, but the devil is still in the detail,” said Peter Gleeson, editor of the Townsville Bulletin newspaper which covers small mining towns in marginal seats in Queensland.

“Whether it’s changed enough for the electorate, on August 21 we will know the answer to that. It’s a 50:50 bet.”

Whichever side wins the election, the Greens party is set to win the balance of power in the upper house Senate and will be key to future legislation.

STAID CAMPAIGN

Gillard, Australia’s first woman prime minister after replacing Kevin Rudd in a party coup in June, has been criticised by some political commentators for a staid, orchestrated election campaign, devoid of major policy announcements.

Government infighting and cabinet leaks appear to be weighing on Labor’s popularity, after it had been comfortably ahead in polls when the election was called on July 17.

The latest Newspoll showed Gillard has kept her clear lead over Abbott as preferred prime minister — at 50 percent to 35 percent. But dissatisfaction with her performance rose 3 points to 40 percent, and is now up 11 percentage points since the election was called.

Abbott dismissed Gillard’s declaration of a more honest campaign, saying the “faceless men” of the Labor party who appointed her prime minister would continue to run her campaign and if Labor was re-elected would run the country.

Additional reporting by Gyles Beckford and Adrian Bathgate in Wellington; Editing by Ed Davies and Jonathan Thatcher

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