Kevin Rudd’s return to the leadership has sparked a surge in support for Australia’s Labor government, with a poll showing the party has closed the gap with Tony Abbott’s opposition ahead of this year’s election.
Labor rose to its highest level on a two-party preferred basis in almost nine months and is tied on 50 percent with the Liberal-National coalition, the Newspoll published today in The Australian showed. On the question of preferred prime minister, Rudd leads Abbott by 53 percent to 31 percent.
Rudd, who ousted Julia Gillard last month, is seeking to tackle the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat and overhaul a party tainted by corruption and infighting. He has gone on the offensive against Abbott, labeling his style of politics too negative and challenging him to a debate on the state of the nation’s finances.
“The poll shows Rudd has quite a remarkable connection with a lot of voters, who are welcoming him back,” said John Warhurst, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. “This must be a worry for Tony Abbott, who was heading toward an easy victory over Gillard but is now falling even further behind as preferred prime minister and has a real fight on his hands at the election. He’s under pressure now to not be seen to be so negative and to get some real policy in front of voters.”
Rudd, 55, defeated the nation’s first female prime minister on June 26 in a leadership ballot, three years after she toppled him in a party coup. In challenging Gillard, he warned Labor faced a catastrophic defeat in elections that must be held by Nov. 30.
The margin between Labor and the coalition was 14 percentage points on a two-party preferred basis in a Newspoll conducted June 21-23. The measure is designed to gauge which party is most likely to form government under Australia’s preferential voting system.
“It’s going to be a close election,” Foreign Minister Bob Carr said in a Bloomberg Television interview in Singapore today. “The polling has been very encouraging to us, it sees Labor recovering its position. There’s more of a view in Australia that this election is contestable.”
Labor’s primary vote in today’s Newspoll rose three percentage points to 38 percent, the same level it received in the August 2010 election that resulted in Gillard forming a minority government. The coalition fell one point to 42 percent and the Greens were down two points at 9 percent.
The survey of 1,126 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Newspoll is 50 percent owned by News Corp. Australia and 50 percent by Millward Brown Inc., a market-research company.
“I always said it was going to be a contest,” Abbott told reporters today and called on Rudd to say whether he will stick with Gillard’s timetable for a Sept. 14 election or name a new date. “Let’s have the election, stop running away from it, bring it on now.”
In a meeting in Jakarta with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on July 5, Rudd secured support for his bid to stop the flow of boat people to Australia from often war-town nations in the Middle East and South Asia. The Indonesian leader agreed to host a meeting of officials from nations including Thailand, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar.
The issue has plagued the Rudd and Gillard governments, with some voters concerned asylum seekers were arriving illegally and living on welfare payments.
Rudd yesterday proposed changing Labor rules to prevent another mid-term coup. Under his plan, votes from Labor’s membership would be weighted 50-50 with votes by party lawmakers when deciding the leadership.
Labor would hold a ballot if it lost an election, if the leader resigned, or when at least 75 percent of the caucus signed a petition requesting a vote because the leader had brought the party into disrepute. Currently, only Labor lawmakers can vote on who leads the party and it is easier to force a ballot.
“This rule change is clear: If a leader of the Australian Labor Party takes the party to the election and they are returned to form the government of the nation, that person remains as leader of the party in the government for the duration of that term,” Rudd said yesterday.
The caucus will hold a special meeting on July 22 to discuss changing the rules.
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