On election eve, Australia's opposition leader says climate change is No. 1 priority

Labor leader Kevin Rudd supports policy breaks from the past on Iraq and the environment, including a commitment to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

On the eve of Australia's landmark federal election, the man widely predicted to become the country's next leader has declared the fight against climate change as his No. 1 priority.

Kevin Rudd, a bookish former diplomat who heads the opposition Labor Party, has pledged to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, a move which would leave the US as the only developed nation not to have ratified the treaty.

Mr. Rudd, a fluent Chinese speaker, has also promised to withdraw Australia's small but politically significant contingent of 550 combat troops from Iraq.

Both polices would distance Canberra from Washington, although Rudd insists he is a staunch supporter of the traditional alliance between the two countries. Australia has looked to the US for its defense ever since Britain's presence in Asia was shattered during World War II.

An emphasis on environmental policy

In his last speech before Saturday's election, Rudd delivered a finely balanced blend of business-as-usual economic policies and bold change for the future.

He said he would personally represent Australia at a UN climate change meeting of environment ministers next month in Bali to discuss the next stage of the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Ratifying the Kyoto treaty would be a radical departure from Prime Minister John Howard, a climate change skeptic and close friend of US President Bush. "Australia needs new leadership on climate change. Mr. Howard remains in a state of denial," Rudd said.

He also promised that by 2020, a fifth of Australia's energy needs would come from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

In an address to the National Press Club in Canberra, Rudd said Australia would enter a "new chapter" if his center-left party clinched victory.

"Saturday will decide whether Australia gets stuck in the world's slow lane, letting other nations pass us by, or whether Australia decides to shift up a gear so we can properly realize our true potential as a nation," he said.

He accused the government of squandering opportunities offered by Australia's 17-year-long economic boom, fueled in large part by China's insatiable demand for raw materials gouged out of the outback.

Rudd's humble roots

A committed Christian and family man, Rudd knew poverty at a young age after his father, a tenant farmer, died of injuries sustained in a car crash. The young Kevin was shunted between schools as his mother tried to make ends meet and care for her four children.

Rudd's repeated insistence during the election campaign that he is an "economic conservative," combined with his safe, sensible, almost nerdish demeanor appears to have struck a chord with Australians tired of Howard's 11 years in office.

While his holier-than-thou reputation has not always sat well with Australians, the perception of Rudd as a man-of-the-people appears to have been boosted, rather than diminished, by revelations that he once visited a New York lap-dancing club.

Much has been made in Australia of Rudd's fluency in Chinese – a legacy of his stint as a diplomat in Beijing in the 1980s.

The government, however, has accused him of being "a showoff." Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he was fluent in French and questioned why the opposition leader chose to repeatedly flaunt his linguistic skills.

"I'm familiar with those types of people who like to show off but I don't think, realistically, there are a lot of votes in the People's Republic of China for Kevin Rudd to win."

Mr. Downer may be mistaken – the opposition has paid for a giant, 20-ft.tall billboard of Rudd to be erected above a busy street in Hong Kong to woo the votes of Chinese-Australians and expatriates.

Howard faces a tough fight

The latest poll, released on Wednesday, indicated that Rudd is set to win the election with 54 percent of the vote compared to Howard's 46 percent.

Rudd warned, however, that if Labor wins, it will be "by a nose."

For his part, Howard, who is fighting for his political life, repeated his mantra that it would be dangerous to entrust the economy to Labor, because of the party's close ties with unions. He urged voters not to seek change for change's sake. "It's not like the Christmas present you didn't want and you can take it back at the Boxing Day sale, it's not like that, it's much harder than that."

He also stressed that if Labor won, it would then – for the first time since the separate colonies came together in a federation in 1901 – control the federal government as well as all eight of Australia's state and territorial governments, creating an unhealthy lack of balance.

Howard said he was anticipating a tough fight but believed the election – his fifth – was still "very winnable."

Howard's government has been damaged by his pledge that even if he wins the election, he will hand over power to his unpopular treasurer, Peter Costello, nicknamed Captain Smirk.

"There is a sense of what is the point in voting for him if he's only going to leave halfway through the next term?" says political scientist Wayne Errington, of the Australian National University in Canberra.

In his speech, Rudd hammered home the message that – like Britain's Gordon Brown after Tony Blair's departure - Mr. Costello could become prime minister "without ever having to face the Australian people."

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