Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has called an election for Sept. 7, with polls predicting a tight race for the votes of an electorate sharply divided over refugee policy, the economy, education, and global warming.
Since taking over from Julia Gillard just six weeks ago, Prime Minister Rudd has resuscitated his center-left Labor Party’s fortunes with a series of popular policies and he's gambling that the time is right to cement Labor's position. The opposition led by Tony Abbott is currently favored in the polls, however.
"Australians now face a choice. And the choice couldn't be starker," Rudd said shortly after meeting with the governor general to set the Sept. 7 election date. "Right now the only thing standing between Australia and an Abbott-led government is you, me, and as many Australians as we can rally to fight for the kind of nation we all want to live in."
Labor was set for an election wipe-out before Rudd defeated the unpopular Ms. Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, in a party-room vote on June 26. Since he's announced a deal with Papua New Guinea to intern foreign asylum seekers there, promised to end an unpopular carbon tax, targeted the corruption-tainted New South Wales branch of the Labor Party and fine-tuned economic policy to deal with slackening demand for Australian natural resources in China.
A former diplomat, Rudd won a landslide victory in 2007 and steered Australia largely unscathed through the global financial crisis. But his often chaotic leadership style saw him toppled in a Labor leadership contest by Gillard in mid-2010.
Gillard emerged from the last election at the head of a minority government and relied on the support of a number of independents. Although most polls put Abbott’s Liberal Party-led coalition slightly ahead in the polls, Rudd has been steadily narrowing the gap.
Speaking to reporters shortly after Rudd’s announcement, Abbott said the election was about a ''clear choice'' between the ''positive'' plans of the Coalition and ''more of the same'' under Labor.
On Saturday Rudd signed an agreement with the president of Nauru, Baron Waqa, to process and settle children and family groups who arrive by boat seeking asylum in Australia. The deal with Nauru came two weeks after asylum seekers vented their anger over the slow pace of processing their claims for refugee status by setting fire to the existing detention center on the island.
The Nauru and Papua New Guinea deals mean that no asylum seekers arriving by boat will be resettled in Australia. Refugee advocates have criticized the policy as callous. But both parties have put border protection and stopping the boats of asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, Iran, and Sri Lanka, at the top of their political agendas.
There are more than 14 million Australians on the electoral rolls and voting is compulsory. Labor now holds 71 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, the Coalition holds 72 and 7 are held by independents.