Gillard’s Labor Rises to 18-Month High in Australian Poll

Support for Australia’s governing Labor Party rose to an 18-month high, boosting Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s control before elections due next year.

Labor’s primary vote rose 3 percentage points to 36 percent, while Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition slid 5 points to 41 percent, according to a Newspoll survey published in the Australian newspaper today. Taking preference votes into account, Labor was equal with the opposition at 50 percent, after trailing by 10 points in the previous survey.

Labor’s poll ratings have been behind the opposition since after the 2010 election, when Australia’s first female prime minister backtracked on a pledge not to introduce a carbon tax. The improvement may relieve pressure on Gillard, who fought off a leadership challenge in February from her predecessor Kevin Rudd, and douse speculation that she may be replaced as party leader before elections that must be held by November 2013.

“Labor has enjoyed a slow but steady rise in polls over the past few months and looks to be back in the game,” said John Warhurst, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. “The carbon tax hasn’t had as big an impact on voters as the opposition was warning about, so the government has finally got some clear air to sell its agenda.”

Gillard’s lead over Abbott as preferred prime minister widened to 14 points from 1 point in the previous poll. The survey of 1,166 people, conducted Sept. 14-16, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Toxic Tax

Abbott, who has pledged to rescind the “toxic” carbon tax should his Liberal-National coalition win power, has denied allegations in the past two weeks that he physically intimidated a female political opponent during Sydney University elections in 1977.

“Labor is trying to drive down Tony Abbott’s poll numbers,” House Opposition Leader Christopher Pyne said in a Sky News interview today. “They’re succeeding in doing that. By election day, the Australian public will not be focusing on the personal demonization of Tony Abbott.”

Gillard, who returned early from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok this month after her father died, has turned her focus to improving Australia’s education system, which would entail boosting spending by about A$6.5 billion ($6.8 billion).

Asylum Seekers

In a bid to overcome a politically damaging stalemate, the government last month said it would reopen camps on the South Pacific island of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to process asylum seekers in an effort to deter refugees trying to reach Australia by boat. Almost 1,000 people, often from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations, are known to have drowned in the waters between Indonesia and Australia since 2001.

Gillard also has been promoting her government’s economic credentials. Australian consumer confidence rebounded after the central bank lowered its benchmark interest rate by 1.25 percentage points from November to June and as unemployment remained close to 5 percent, a private survey showed. The sentiment index for September rose 1.6 percent to 98.2, a Westpac Banking Corp. and Melbourne Institute survey taken Sept. 3-8 of 1,200 consumers showed.

Still, signs of a stalled mining boom may put pressure on government revenue, as Gillard seeks to end four years of budget deficits and return to surplus this financial year.

“The easy earnings we get out of high prices are now gone,” Resources Minister Martin Ferguson told Bloomberg Television in an interview from Canberra today. “Our job now is to no longer rely on the benefit of huge increases, which is what has occurred in recent years in commodity prices, but to do all the hard work to improve our competitiveness.”

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