Australia's prime minister Julia Gillard called an August 21 election today just weeks after taking power, vowing to tackle the flashpoint issues of refugees, the economy and global warming. Ms Gillard, 48, said she would ask the Australian people to endorse her leadership after she deposed the former prime minister Kevin Rudd in a party coup. "Today I seek a mandate from the Australian people to move Australia forward," Ms Gillard said, officially kicking off the five-week campaign.
"This election I believe presents Australians with a very clear choice ... whether we move Australia forward or go back." Australia's first woman prime minister said the nation had "come too far as a country and evolved too much as a society to risk the kind of backward looking leadership" offered by her conservative opponent Tony Abbott. The former industrial lawyer laid out her case for re-election on the issues of asylum seekers, economic management and climate change, painting herself as a progressive optimist who was "asking the Australian people for their trust."
But, after just three weeks in office in which she insisted she had made some "big strides forward", she warned it would be a "very close election" and that a "close, tough, hard-fought campaign" lay ahead. She faces an uphill battle to deliver the centre-left ruling Labour party a second three-year term in office, after a spectacular fall from the dizzying heights of popularity it enjoyed for its first two years in power.
The likely bloody campaign pits self-confessed atheist Gillard against scrappy former student boxer Abbott, head of the Liberal-National coalition, who played a key role in sinking Mr Rudd's career. Once regular sparring partners on commercial breakfast television, Ms Gillard said she expected Mr Abbott to prove a "robust" opponent. "We are ready to govern," a confident Mr Abbott told party faithful in Queensland ahead of the announcement.
"This is a bad government and it deserves to lose." The opposition would need to win an additional 17 seats, or cause a swing of 2.3 per cent, to return to power, less than three years after their 11 years in rule were ended by Mr Rudd's landslide election victory in November 2007. Formerly his deputy, Ms Gillard has enjoyed a strong opinion poll surge since succeeding Mr Rudd, who in six months went from being one of the most popular prime ministers in Australian history to being discarded.
The key factors that led to his political implosion were his decision to shelve a carbon emissions trading scheme after Mr Abbott vowed to oppose it and a plan to impose a much-disputed 40 per cent tax on mining profits. After being sworn in on June 24, Ms Gillard began defusing the political timebombs she inherited, quickly striking a deal with major miners which scrapped the mining super tax, replacing it with a watered down version.
She pledged to fight climate change and is widely expected to announce a new plan to put a price on carbon emissions during the electoral campaign. But her bid to neutralise the sensitive issue of stemming the flow of asylum seekers to Australia by outsourcing their processing to East Timor backfired when legislators there dismissed the plan. And Ms Gillard has come under criticism from the opposition and media over the brutal manner in which she rose to power.
"They executed the elected prime minister of Australia because they say the government lost its way," Mr Abbott said in Queensland, a key battleground state. "But what we have seen from this government is a seamless transition from incompetence to incompetence." A Nielsen and Galaxy opinion poll last week gave Labour a narrow but election-winning 52-48 percent lead over the opposition coalition, up from early June.
The election for members of the lower House of Representatives and half of the Senate is expected to be played out in key marginal seats in the populous eastern states of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. * AFP