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Australia PM surprises with September polls announcement

The Labor party leader said the move would give “shape and order” to the year.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Image: Firdia Lisnawati/AP

AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER Julia Gillard said today that the nation will go the polls on 14 September, in a surprise early announcement as her minority government faces a tough re-election battle.

Gillard, who holds power by a narrow margin and is trailing in the polls behind the conservative opposition, stunned pundits by breaking from the tradition of revealing election dates only a few weeks in advance.

The Labor party leader said the move would give “shape and order” to the year and enable the vote to be one “not of fevered campaigning, but of cool and reasoned deliberation.”

“I reflected on this over the summer and I thought it’s not right for Australians to be forced into a guessing game and it’s not right for Australians to not face this year with certainty and stability,” she said.

As the nation’s mining-fuelled economy starts to slow, voters face a choice between Gillard, the country’s first female leader who came to power nearly three years ago, and her conservative opponent Tony Abbott.

Opinion polls

Opinion polls suggest Gillard, who made global headlines last year with a fiery speech about misogyny targeting Abbott, will lose in September, although neither politician has broad appeal.

Gillard, 51, has struggled to gain support, particularly since introducing a pollution tax for industry to combat climate change despite promising there would never be a carbon tax if she were elected.

Fitness enthusiast Abbott, 55, who briefly trained to become a Catholic priest, has promised to repeal the levy and also do away with a controversial mining profits tax.

Other key election themes will be economic management, and the charged issue of how to deal with a record influx of asylum-seekers arriving on Australian shores by boat.

“This election will be about trust,” Abbott told reporters.

“Who do you trust to reduce cost of living pressures, to boost small business, boost job security; and who do you trust to secure our borders?”

Gillard last went to the polls in 2010, just weeks after she staged a dramatic party room coup against then prime minister Kevin Rudd.

But the Welsh-born ex-lawyer failed to win over an electorate shocked by her ousting of the popular Rudd, and the election resulted in a hung parliament which forced her into a coalition with independents to retain power.

Flame-haired Gillard, who is unmarried and a professed atheist, has also survived speculation about her leadership within Labor – trouncing Rudd 71 to 31 in February 2012 when he challenged her.

Political observers were mixed over whether Gillard’s manoeuvre, designed to allow Labor to set the political agenda as the polls loom, would prove effective.

“I see it as Gillard looking to impose herself in an election year. It’s a small thing, but it’s about wanting to get on the front foot,” John Warhurst, a political expert at the Australian National University, told AFP.

“Hysteria”

Gillard said even when the “hysteria” regarding the 2010 election was at its peak, she had always said parliament would serve a full three-year term and she did not think it was right to allow continued speculation about the poll date.

“So in the interest of certainty, in the interest of transparency, in the interest of good government I have made the date clear today,” said Gillard, wearing glasses for the first time in fronting the media.

Australian prime ministers traditionally name the election at a date to their political advantage, but Gillard said by announcing the schedule early the opposition would have time to develop its policies.

National broadcaster ABC’s election expert Antony Green said the prime minister had probably given the longest notice in Australian history of an election.

“Instead of trying to catch the opposition out short of detail with a snap poll, the prime minister has set out a road map to polling day, giving the opposition plenty of time to announce policy,” he said.

In her speech announcing the date, Gillard said the government had a clear plan to make sure Australia tapped into economic growth in Asia, and would announce savings to maintain the sustainability of the budget.

Parliament will be dissolved on August 12. All the seats in the lower House of Representatives will be contested, but only half of the upper house Senate. Lawmakers there serve six years so only half the spots come up each election cycle.

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