Gillard’s Labor Narrows Poll Gap as Australia Election Looms

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ruling Labor party received a bounce in popularity, narrowing the gap against the opposition coalition in the first opinion poll of the 2013 election year.

Labor rose 3 percentage points to 49 percent on a two-party preferred basis, with Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition falling 3 points to 51 percent, according to a Newspoll survey published in the Australian newspaper today. The measure is the best gauge of which major party is likely to win the seats required to form a government.

Australia’s first female prime minister is trying to focus on winning an election that must be held by Nov. 30, amid coalition attacks on the credibility of her minority government. In 2 1/2 years in power, the former union lawyer has struggled to focus voter attention on the economic and legislative achievements of her administration, which needs support from independents and Greens to make laws.

“The coalition is still on target to win the election comfortably,” said Zareh Ghazarian, a lecturer at the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Melbourne’s Monash University. “Polls usually tighten up in an election year as voters get to the point of deciding what government they want to lead them. Policies become more important than personalities.”

Under the Australian system that requires voters to rank candidates, the major parties’ primary vote may be bolstered by preference votes once minor parties or independents are eliminated. Labor rose 6 points in Newspoll’s survey of primary voting intentions to 38 percent, its best result since the August 2010 election, with the opposition falling 2 points to 44 percent.

Better PM

The Jan. 11-13 telephone survey of 1,152 people had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. On the question of who would make the better prime minister, Gillard extended her lead over Abbott by 3 points to 45 percent compared with his 33 percent. The previous poll was held Dec. 7-9.

Today’s survey revives momentum for Gillard’s Labor, which stalled at the end of last year when she faced claims by Abbott that she may have broken the law when she was a union lawyer in the 1990s. Gillard fiercely denied the allegations, which came two months after she accused Abbott of sexism and misogyny during a speech in parliament.

“There’s only one poll that ever counts and that’s the election,” Finance Minister Penny Wong said in an interview today with Australian Broadcasting Corp. television. “It’s decided on who people think has got the head and the heart to run the country and who’s got the economic plans for Australia’s future.”

Fighting Fires

Abbott, a 55-year-old Rhodes Scholar and volunteer firefighter who delayed his annual summer holidays this month to help battle blazes in New South Wales state, is vowing to overturn Labor’s taxes on carbon emissions and mining profits if he wins power. The coalition leader has also said he will focus on revamping the nation’s industrial-relations and immigration-policy laws.

Gillard, who is attempting to focus voter attention on her plan to improve education and disabled-welfare funding, has also been attacked by Abbott for backpedaling on a pledge to this year deliver the first surplus since the 2009 global recession. In a midyear review released in October, the government forecast a budget surplus of A$1.08 billion ($1.14 billion) in the 12 months ending June 30 after recording a A$44 billion deficit last fiscal year.

Surplus Unlikely

Treasurer Wayne Swan said last month Australia is unlikely to deliver the surplus as weaker growth and a strong local currency curb tax receipts. Still, with the price of iron ore surging 32 percent since the Reserve Bank of Australia’s latest rate cut on Dec. 4 made it 1.75 percentage points in reductions in 14 months, Gillard’s surplus goal may be back in reach as mining-tax revenues increase.

Australia’s unemployment rate fell to 5.2 percent in November from 5.4 percent a month earlier and the economy expanded 3.1 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, among the fastest in the developed world.

A stronger economy would bolster Gillard’s re-election chances, which have been damaged by coalition attacks on her integrity, especially that she compromised her credibility by reneging on a pledge not to implement a carbon tax in return for Greens support in parliament. Three months after winning the prime minister’s job in a party coup against predecessor Kevin Rudd in June 2010, Gillard cobbled together a minority government with support from the Greens and independents.

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