Australia's ruling party on edge as voters head to polls Saturday

Opinion polls suggest it doesn't look good for the current Australian government ahead of this weekend's general election. The economy, asylum policy, and carbon tax are key issues.

Rob Griffith/AP
Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (r.) meets supporters after a pre-election rally in Mt. Druitt, Australia, Sept. 6. Australians will go to the polls on Saturday during the federal election to choose the 44th Parliament of Australia.

Australian voters are now set to end six years of the same party rule. The latest opinion polls put the Liberal-National coalition in what appears an unbeatable position ahead of this weekend’s election.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd is still hoping that a modest pool of undecided voters will save him from electoral annihilation, just nine weeks after wresting the prime ministership from Julia Gillard in a party showdown.

“Never, ever, ever underestimate my fighting spirit as your prime minister,” he told thousands of supporters at Labor’s election launch last week.

But the fight looks to have been settled already. A poorly run Labor campaign characterized by policy making on the run, and big spending promises that have failed to win over voters, has cost Mr. Rudd.

This week’s Newspoll survey showed that Labor could lose 20 seats, handing power to opposition leader Tony Abbott, who only needs to pick up six seats to have a clear majority ahead of the Sept. 7 election.

Newspoll also showed that Mr. Abbott had overtaken Rudd as the preferred prime minister, 43 percent to 41 percent. Overall the Liberal-National coalition was ahead 54 to 46 percent.

Underestimated opposition

Gerard Henderson, the director of the Sydney Institute, says Labor party strategists have completely underestimated Abbott’s allure to the electorate.

“Labor considered Mr. Abbott to be unelectable,” Mr. Henderson says, “but they underestimated his persistence and they misunderstood the appeal of his social conservatism in the suburbs and regional centers.”

Rudd went into the election promising an American-style campaign, drafting three of US President Obama's top political operatives known for their ability to harness social media.  

But the strategy has had minimal impact, says David Holmes of the Department of Communications and Media Studies at Melbourne University because it was more suited to recruiting “first-time voters and nonvoters rather than the swinging voters of Australia’s compulsory electoral system.”

Labor strategists have concentrated on reminding voters of Rudd’s record for seeing Australia through the global economic crisis largely unscathed during his first term as prime minister from 2007 to 2010. His principle campaign message has been “a fair go for Australians,” while attacking his opponent for having a secret agenda of budget cuts that would affect education, health, and the public service.

Abbott, who came to within a few seats of gaining power in the 2010 election, has gained ground by promising to scrap an unpopular carbon tax, taking a tough stand on asylum seekers, and announcing a generous paid maternity leave for working mothers.

Mr. Henderson says Rudd’s pitch to voters has been undermined by his own failure to mark out a coherent strategy – altering course on key issues including the carbon tax, gay marriage, and how to deal with asylum seekers. During the campaign Rudd has caught his own ministers off guard with unscripted announcements on creating a tax haven in the Northern Territory, moving a major Naval base from Sydney to Brisbane, and reviewing foreign investment in Australia’s agricultural sector.

“A lot of people still don’t like Tony Abbott, but at least they know where he stands. You can’t say the same thing about Kevin Rudd,” says Henderson. “In the past six years he has gone from being a Christian socialist, to an economic conservative to an economic nationalist.”

Aside from the asylum seeker debate, which highlighted the delicate nature of Australia’s relations with its close neighbors, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, foreign policy was largely absent as an election issue until last month’s alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus.

On Syria

Australia took over the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council on Sept. 1, with its five permanent members – China, France, Russia, Britain, and the US – at loggerheads over how to respond to the attack.

This week Rudd, a former career diplomat and foreign minister, accused Abbott of being from the "John Wayne school of international relations" after the opposition leader characterized the Syrian conflict as “baddies versus baddies,” a reference to the influence of jihadi groups among rebels opposed to Assad regime.

Abbott’s more cautious approach to the Syrian crisis has been reflected in his campaign style more generally. With China's economic slowdown directly affecting Australia’s mining boom-led recovery, Abbott has been careful not to make any promises on bringing the budget back to surplus or doling out dollars to help ailing sectors of the economy such as the car industry.

It’s a strategy that has largely been endorsed by the nation’s mainstream press. In Sydney, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Telegraph's front page proclaimed simply, "Australia needs Tony." Even the non-Murdoch papers such as the Melbourne Sunday Age have acknowledged that Rudd's time was up.

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