Australian Ministers Back Gillard Amid Reports of Rudd Challenge

Senior Australian government ministers are rallying around Prime Minister Julia Gillard amid media reports she may face a challenge from predecessor Kevin Rudd as her popularity in opinion polls falls.

“I’m a strong supporter of the prime minister,” Defense Minister Stephen Smith told Sky News today. When asked if she could survive as leader, he replied: “absolutely.” Treasurer and deputy leader Wayne Swan, manufacturing minister Kim Carr and other senior members of the ruling Labor government have also backed Gillard.

Media speculation emerged this week that Rudd, now foreign minister, will move for the top job after a Jan. 28-29 Newspoll survey showed Labor’s primary vote fell one percentage point to 30 percent, behind the Liberal-National coalition’s 45 percent. Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, formed a government after the nation’s closest election in seven decades in September 2010, three months after replacing Rudd as leader in a late-night party coup.

There’s been a “seismic shift” in support away from Gillard, a senior Labor official who wasn’t identified said, according to Fairfax Media today. Factional bosses within Labor have reported senior party members have begun counting numbers to gauge her level of support, The Australian newspaper reported Jan. 31.

“I’m not in the camp that says you sit here with your eyes on the opinion polls and that’s all that matters,” Gillard told journalists in the nation’s capital, Canberra, today. “I don’t worry about chatter in the media, I get on with the job.”

Falling Polls

Rudd, who left Australia yesterday for a security conference in Germany, said he was happy with his role as foreign minister, according to The Australian.

Gillard’s lead as preferred prime minister in the latest Newspoll fell 3 percentage points to 40 percent, compared with opposition leader Tony Abbott’s 37 percent. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll capped a challenging start to 2012 for Gillard, who after parliament opens Feb. 7 plans to implement a price on carbon emissions and pass mining tax legislation through the Senate. This year she has faced hurdles including an independent lawmaker’s decision to withdraw support for the government and opposition demands for an inquiry into Labor’s role in clashes between police and aboriginal protesters.

One-Seat Majority

Gillard’s parliamentary majority was reduced to one seat last week when Andrew Wilkie withdrew his support. Wilkie, who helped Labor form a minority government in 2010, said Gillard’s decision to implement a trial period on technology that restricts gambling on slot machines fell short of a pledge to make the limits mandatory.

“It’s up to the Labor Party to put its house in order,” opposition leader Abbott told reporters in Sydney today. He earlier told the Nine Network “all the signs are there” for a challenge from Rudd.

An Australian bookmaker agrees. Sportsbet, which says it’s the nation’s largest online betting agency by revenue, is offering to return A$1.20 ($1.28) on every A$1 bet should Rudd vie for Gillard’s job by the end of the year.

“Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” Sportsbet.com.au spokesman Shaun Anderson said in an e-mailed statement. “The writing seems on the wall that Rudd will try and get back at Gillard and challenge for the leadership of the Labor Party -- it is a matter of when, not if.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Scott in Canberra at jscott14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

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