Australian Surf Town’s Woes Show Rudd Hurdle to Save Seats

Handing election fliers to shoppers in the surfing town of Torquay, Labor lawmaker Darren Cheeseman is battling to save Australia’s most competitive constituency in tomorrow’s national election.

“This is going to be a tough seat,” Cheeseman -- who holds his district of Corangamite, an hour’s drive west of Melbourne, by a 0.3 percentage point margin -- said last month. “It is reflective of the mood of the country.”

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s minority Labor government will lose office to Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, should opinion polls prove accurate, ushering an end to the party’s six years in power. Raising the odds against a Labor victory, the party needs to pick up at least five seats in the 150-member lower house to govern in its own right at a time of dwindling support in former strongholds such as Western Sydney.

Rudd retook the leadership 10 weeks ago from Julia Gillard as Labor sought to improve its fortunes and has since pledged increased aid for a floundering car industry, proposed a lower tax zone for northern Australia and backed a high-speed rail link for the eastern seaboard. Abbott, whose coalition starts with 72 seats and is forecast to pick up two more from retiring independents, has promised to abolish Labor’s carbon and mining levies and extend paid parental leave.

‘Already Behind’

“The real starting point in the election is that the Labor party is already behind,” said Paul Brennan, chief economist in Australia for Citigroup Inc., who forecasts the coalition will gain as many as 15 seats. “The election is the opposition’s to lose, rather than the government’s to win.”

The coalition leads Labor by 54 percent to 46 percent on a two-party preferred basis, according to a Newspoll survey published Sept. 2 in the Australian newspaper. Such a swing to the opposition from the 2010 election, if uniform across the nation, would deliver about 14 additional seats to Abbott. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Labor holds eight of the 10 federal districts in Western Sydney, home to 2 million people. The coalition is the opinion poll favorite to pick up Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury’s seat of Lindsay and the districts of Greenway and Parramatta, where a Newspoll published Aug. 31 put the coalition on 57 percent.

Rudd, 55, is fighting to counter any such losses in his home state of Queensland. Opinion surveys suggest that’s unlikely: Among eight competitive Queensland seats not held by Labor, the coalition leads by 60 percent to 40 percent on a two-party preferred basis, according to a Newspoll published Aug. 24.

‘Saving the Furniture’

“There always has been a strong sentiment that the whole Rudd experience is about saving the furniture,” said Stephen Stockwell, a political analyst at Griffith University in Brisbane. “It would be a miracle if they pulled it off.”

During his first period in office, 2007-2010, Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol, delivered a parliamentary apology to indigenous Australians and helped the nation avoid recession in the 2008 financial crisis with a A$42 billion ($38 billion) stimulus package.

He was ousted by his deputy Gillard in a June 2010 party room coup amid slumping poll ratings and complaints from colleagues about an autocratic style. Gillard formed a minority government with the backing of the Greens party and independents less than three months later, following the closest election in seven decades.

Voter Backlash

After a brief poll bounce, Gillard’s popularity sank amid a voter backlash against the ouster of a sitting prime minister and her backtracking on pledges not to introduce a carbon tax and to return the budget to surplus. With Labor facing a landslide election defeat, Rudd recaptured the leadership in a party ballot on June 26.

The factional infighting damaged Labor’s standing with voters and saw at least nine present and former ministers, including Gillard, Defense Minister Stephen Smith and former Climate Change Minister Greg Combet not standing for re-election. That increased Labor’s challenge as new candidates were drafted to defend their seats.

“We’ve all got to start somewhere and we have to fight harder probably,” said Alannah MacTiernan, a 60-year-old local mayor selected to fight for Smith’s seat in Perth. “Obviously, the polling isn’t as positive as we’d like, but you keep fighting until the end,” she said of Labor’s chances nationally.

Independent Lawmakers

Independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, on whom Labor relied to pass legislation, are also stepping down, with opinion polls indicating their seats will go to the coalition.

More than 14.7 million people are registered to vote, and will choose lawmakers to serve three-year terms in the 150-member lower House of Representatives, where Labor currently has 71 seats and the coalition 72. About half the 76 seats in the upper house Senate are also up for grabs, where the coalition has 34, Labor 31 and Greens and independents a cumulative 11.

With Rudd and Abbott, 55, both pledging to cut the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, and backing Gillard’s policies to boost education and disability care, economic management has served as the defining difference.

The coalition has pledged to reduce the company tax rate to 28.5 percent and cut the cost of red tape by A$1 billion a year. Rudd has warned his opponent’s plans to rein in spending, including cutting 12,000 civil service jobs, risk tipping Australia into a recession.

Backing Abbott

“The nub of the decision for me is economic management,” said Chris Drew, 42, after he passed Cheeseman campaigning outside a Torquay grocery store. The oil and gas exploration consultant said he will vote for the Liberal Party.

Most of the nation’s major daily newspapers today backed Abbott. “A coalition victory is being eagerly awaited by a business community that has been drained of confidence and is fed up with Labor,” Fairfax Media Ltd.’s Australian Financial Review said.

“Allowing the Labor Party time out from governing will be an act of kindness,” News Corp.’s The Australian said. “While there are gaps in his policy platform and some curious offerings along the way, it is clear that an Abbott government has a clear philosophical framework.”

Melbourne’s The Age supported Labor, calling some of its policies “visionary, forward-thinking and nation-building, not gimmicks devised to meet a three-year election cycle.” The newspaper said it valued “policies above political opportunism; we do not advocate a vote simply for the sake of change.”

Corangamite ‘Microcosm’

In the city of Geelong, parts of which are in Corangamite, Labor’s prospects are dimming. Ford Motor Co. said in May it plans to close its plant in the city as it ends production in the nation after nine decades. With growing coastal commuter towns, a sparsely populated rural belt and urban centers struggling with a manufacturing decline, Cheeseman’s district is “a microcosm of the nation,” said Geoff Robinson, a politics lecturer at Deakin University in Geelong.

“Labor just fell over the line in the last federal election, and Labor just fell over the line in Corangamite,” said Robinson. “This time, I don’t think it looks optimistic for them.”

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