Australian Opposition’s Growing Poll Lead Signals Abbott Win

Australia’s opposition Liberal-National coalition widened its lead over the Labor government in an opinion poll, signaling leader Tony Abbott may replace Kevin Rudd as prime minister after the Sept. 7 election.

Support for the coalition rose to 53 percent on a two-party preferred basis this week from 52 percent two weeks earlier, while those voters backing the ruling Labor party fell one point to 47 percent, according to a Herald-Nielsen poll published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper today. Support for Rudd as preferred prime minister fell to 48 percent from 50 percent while 45 percent of those surveyed backed Abbott, up from 42 percent.

“I don’t believe in the polls, it’s a very, very close race,” Abbott told reporters in Adelaide today. “This campaign still has a long, long way to run.”

Both sides’ ability to promise pre-election sweeteners has been hit by falling government revenue as they each have put management of the world’s 12th-largest economy at the center of their campaigns for the Sept. 7 election. The Labor government is pressuring the coalition to release details of the costs of its policies, including Abbott’s proposed paid parental leave system.

The Nielsen poll interviewed 2,545 voters by telephone from Aug. 18 to 22 and had a margin of error of 1.9 percent. If the level of support for each party in the poll was maintained until the election, Labor would lose 10 of its seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives in Australia’s parliament. The coalition only needs to win four additional seats to form government and for Abbott to become prime minister.

Griffith Poll

A separate survey of voters in Rudd’s Brisbane electorate of Griffith showed the prime minister is at risk of losing his own seat, a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper today showed. Support for Labor was at 48 percent in Griffith, compared with 52 percent for the coalition on a two-party preferred basis, according to the poll of 500 voters conducted on Aug. 21 and 22, with a margin of error of as much as 4.4 percentage points.

Rudd today suspended his campaign to travel to Canberra to receive national security briefings on the crisis in Syria, amid allegations of chemical attacks in Damascus by forces loyal to the nation’s president, Bashar al-Asaad.

The Liberal Party will tomorrow hold a rally in Brisbane to officially start its election campaign. The Greens party began its official campaign today.

Minority Government

Labor, with 71 seats in the lower house of parliament, has relied on support from independent lawmakers and the Greens party since forming a minority government after the 2010 election. The coalition, which had 72 lawmakers in the chamber where government is formed, needs to increase that to 76 at the election to rule in its own right.

Abbott said this month his coalition wouldn’t form a minority government with the Greens should the election result in another hung parliament. Liberal voters would be directed to preference the Greens last on their ballot paper in a bid to avoid a hung parliament, he said today, calling them “political fringe dwellers.”

Greens Party Leader Senator Christine Milne today warned voters against giving Abbott control of both houses of parliament.

Absolute Power

“Australian voters do not want any party to have absolute power in parliament,” Milne said in a statement ahead of the start of the Greens’ campaign. “The last time this happened, John Howard introduced Work Choices,” unpopular labor laws that decreased the power of labor unions.

Rudd dismantled the laws after he trounced Howard, the last Liberal prime minister, in the worst election defeat in the Liberal Party’s 63-year history.

Rudd -- who was replaced by Julia Gillard, the nation’s first female prime minister, in a Labor leadership coup in June 2010 -- returned to the top job on June 26 after defeating Gillard in a leadership ballot. He won support in the party vote as the best person to help Labor avoid a resounding election defeat. While Rudd initially narrowed the margin in opinion polls, Abbott has since regained the upper hand in the most recent surveys.

“Election campaigns are often tough and this one is particularly tough and we’ve always said we’re the underdog,” Finance Minister Penny Wong said in an e-mailed transcript of a press conference in Melbourne yesterday. “And Tony Abbott, were the election to have been held when it was called, would be the prime minister today, which is why it makes it all the more important that he levels with the Australian people.”

Campaign Promises

Rudd last weekend pledged A$500 million ($452 million) to help the nation’s car industry after producers cut jobs and announced plant closures as low tariffs and a strong Australian dollar make imported models cheaper. The coalition announced plans for a parental leave system that would give mothers 26 weeks leave at their full wage. Planned to start from 2015, it would be funded partially by cutting Labor’s existing program.

The opposition needs A$30 billion of savings in addition to the $13.5 billion it has announced by fiscal year 2017 to ensure the budget won’t be worse off than the government’s most recent forecasts, Saul Eslake, chief Australia economist for Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch division, said in a report on Aug. 22. The coalition has promised revenue measures costing $28.5 billion over four years to fiscal year 2017, and new spending totaling $14.75 billion, he said.

Abbott has also pledged to abolish the carbon and mining taxes introduced by the Labor government under Gillard, and cut the company tax rate to 28.5 percent on July 1, 2015. Rudd has promised to move to an emissions-trading scheme from July 1, 2014.

Asylum Policies

Rudd’s attempts to diffuse concerns about a jump in asylum seekers under Labor failed to reverse the slumping support for the party. While Rudd toughened Labor’s stance after retaking office by pledging to send undocumented asylum seekers to camps in developing nations such as Papua New Guinea, voters prefer Abbott’s plan to put a military commander in charge of executing his “stop the boats” edict, according to a Newspoll earlier this month.

“Refugees have for too long been our nation’s chief political football, but in this election the race to the bottom has hit new lows,” the Greens’ Milne said in her statement.

Rudd today denied a report in the Australian newspaper that Papua New Guinea has suspended talks with Australia on resettling refugees and halted work expanding a detention center on Manus Island. PNG’s Chief Migration Officer Mataio Rabura complained that local authorities weren’t being consulted by Australian officials and work tenders were advertised only in Australia, the newspaper said, citing a confidential letter.

“That correspondence is a week or so old and, based on a statement overnight by the PNG foreign minister, I think you’d be aware that all of those matters have been dealt with,” Rudd told reporters in Sydney today.

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