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Gillard Backed by Ministers Amid Rudd Leadership Speculation

March 19 (Bloomberg) -- Two Australian government ministers rejected reports they’ve lost confidence in Prime Minister Julia Gillard, amid speculation she may face a leadership challenge months before an election that polls show she’ll lose.

“Those stories aren’t true,” Foreign Minister Bob Carr told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television in an interview broadcast from Washington today. “I’m loyal to Julia Gillard.” Minister for Mental Health and Ageing Mark Butler said in a Twitter posting he remains a “proud member” of her team, after the Sydney Morning Herald said the lawmaker was reconsidering his support for the prime minister.

With parliament in session for its last week before the May 14 federal budget, speculation has mounted that Labor members will return to backing former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was ousted by Gillard in June 2010. Gillard’s minority government has trailed in opinion polls for almost two years, with surveys this month showing she lags opposition leader Tony Abbott on the question of preferred prime minister.

Rudd’s supporters raised the idea of a leadership move with Labor colleagues and could act this week, the Nine television network reported, without giving names. The Australian Financial Review cited unnamed supporters of Gillard saying that Rudd was a few votes short of a majority of Labor lawmakers needed to oust Gillard in a run-off.

Support for the prime minister has waned after a series of policy back flips -- including on a tax on carbon emissions -- and scandals involving senior party members. A weakening manufacturing sector in some key Labor seats on the fringes of major cities has also seen her support dissipate.

‘Double Standards’

Alongside perceived policy missteps, Gillard has come under scrutiny as Australia’s first female prime minister. In a September 2011 interview with Bloomberg News, she described the Australian culture as “blokey” and last year in parliament accused Abbott of “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism.”

During parliamentary question time today, Abbott asked whether Gillard would view it as a reflection of a lack of confidence in her government if lawmakers fail to pass legislation on the media industry this week. Gillard responded by saying Labor will win the Sept. 14 election.

“It will be a contest, counter intuitive to those believing in gender stereotypes, but a contest between a strong feisty woman and a policy weak man, and I’ll win it,” Gillard said.

Rudd’s Popularity

Labor rose 3 percentage points to 48 percent on a two-party preferred basis, with Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition falling 3 points to 52 percent, according to a Newspoll survey published in the Australian newspaper on March 12. The poll also showed Labor would win the election if Rudd replaced Gillard as Labor leader.

A separate poll published yesterday in Fairfax newspapers showed Rudd is twice as popular with voters as Gillard. Asked who of the two was the preferred Labor leader, 62 percent of respondents said Rudd and 31 percent chose Gillard, according to the Nielsen survey.

Among reasons cited by Gillard and her supporters for Rudd’s ouster in 2010 were his erratic decision-making, lack of communication and his desire to concentrate power away from his own ministers. Rudd said early last year that he’d learned the lessons from his time as prime minister and would try to delegate and consult more widely.

Gillard told Fairfax newspapers in an interview published yesterday that she wouldn’t yield to leadership speculation: “If I haven’t flinched yet, why would I flinch now?” she was cited as saying.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net

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