Australia’s first female prime minister faces voter backlash at first election

By Rod Mcguirk, AP
Thursday, August 19, 2010

Australian PM faces voter backlash at election

CANBERRA, Australia — Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister by seizing control of her party from her former boss less than two months ago and called elections weeks later — hoping to save the left-leaning government from rising voter grumbling with fresh, straight-talking leadership. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Instead, conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott — once considered by colleagues to be too much of a loose cannon to lead — has made Saturday’s contest one of the closest in decades, offering Australians a stark choice in leaders.

Gillard could face a voter backlash over her unprecedented party power grab and her policy direction on climate change. But most analysts expect her center-left Labor Party will retain a slim majority for a second three-year term.

Gillard stunned Australians when she launched a sudden challenge to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s leadership on June 24. She had been his deputy. He surrendered without a fight after seeing that his support among government colleagues had collapsed along with the party’s popularity in opinion polls.

Gillard sought to seal her mandate by calling an election. But her party has had difficulty moving forward from the leadership coup.

Gillard’s five-week campaign has been repeatedly distracted by damaging media leaks, apparently from well-placed anonymous government sources, which have been blamed on Rudd or Rudd loyalists.

Rudd has denied any part in the treachery. Abbott has cited the leaks as evidence of a dysfunctional government.

Rudd’s political ghost continued to shadow Gillard’s campaign this week when his 26-year-old daughter Jessica Rudd launched her debut novel about a fictional Australian prime minister who is overthrown by his female deputy. The author explained that she finished the book in December last year and its similarity to reality was purely coincidental.

Nick Economou, a Monash University political scientist, said many government supporters remain angry that their chosen leader was deposed.

“The big strategic weakness in the Labor campaign has been the failure to satisfactorily explain the change of leader and I think that’s certainly going to hurt Labor and Gillard in Queensland,” Rudd’s home state, Australian National University political scientist Norman Abjorensen said.

In the final days of the campaign, a saltwater crocodile named Dirty Harry, renowned for picking the soccer World Cup winner last month, added to Gillard’s momentum by predicting a Labor win based on his choice of chicken carcasses dangling beneath portraits of each candidate.

Abbott demonstrated his stamina by embarking on what he said would be 36 straight hours of campaigning through Friday including several pre-dawn radio interviews and brief snoozes during car trips between engagements.

Pollster Martin O’Shannessy, chief executive of the respected market researcher Newspoll, predicted Labor would scrape through the election with a four or five seat majority in the 150-seat House of Representatives. Labor cruised to power in 2007 with an eight-seat majority after 11 years in opposition.

O’Shannessy said Rudd’s popularity plummeted in Newspoll surveys after April when he shelved plans to make big polluters pay for the carbon gas they emit. That created Gillard’s chance to strike.

But Labor’s rebound in the polls under Gillard proved short-lived, after she announced in the first week of the election campaign that greenhouse gas polluters will not be charged during Labor’s second term.

Reneging on the key promise of Labor’s 2007 election campaign to make polluters pay had created “a leadership crisis,” O’Shannessy said.

“People are saying this leadership isn’t what we signed up for,” O’Shannessy said.

Abbott, who doubts the science behind climate change conclusions, is a stark contrast to Gillard. While long considered too far right to appeal to Australia’s center, Gillard has wrestled her reputation for being too far to the left.

Abbott is his Liberal Party’s third leader since it lost power and the first to threaten the government in opinion polls.

The athletic 52-year-old is often pictured cycling or swimming off Sydney beaches and is widely regarded as a man’s man who struggles to attract female voters.

He once studied to become a Roman Catholic priest but is now married with three daughters. A social conservative, he regrets that divorce has become easily available under Australian law.

Gillard, 48, is a Welsh-born former Baptist turned atheist and became the first prime minister in the 109-year history of the Australian parliament to take an affirmation of office instead of swearing on a Bible.

She will become the first prime minister to move into the official residence in the national capital with a common law spouse if she wins elections.

She was widely acknowledged as the government’s best communicator and Rudd’s natural successor.

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