x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Rivals square up in Australian poll debate

Australia's upcoming election will focus on securing the economy as the commodities boom weakens.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, left, and opposition leader Tony Abbott during the Leaders Debate, ahead of the September 7 election.
Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, left, and opposition leader Tony Abbott during the Leaders Debate, ahead of the September 7 election.

SYDNEY // Australia's upcoming election will focus on securing the economy as the commodities boom weakens, said Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, yesterday as he opened the first televised debate with his challenger.

Mr Rudd, who retook the Labor Party leadership in late June, has repeatedly maintained that he is the underdog in the September 7 national poll against the conservative opposition leader, Tony Abbott.

The pair began an hour-long televised debate with Mr Rudd stressing his centre-left Labor government's accomplishments in keeping the economy out of recession during the global financial crisis.

"This economy is strong. This election is about the future strength of our economy and how best to secure it," Mr Rudd said.

"The election is about a clear choice on the economy, on jobs, on how we support families under pressure, and how we support education and health."

The election comes as the decade-long resources boom is beginning to unwind, with the central bank this week scaling back its near-term forecasts for economic growth.

Mr Rudd said that with the weakening of the mining boom the economy faced challenges, and he offered a "new way to take Australia forward".

Mr Abbott, who leads a conservative Liberal/National coalition that is narrowly ahead in opinion polls, said a government he led would strengthen the economy as he committed himself to abandoning Labor's industry tax on carbon pollution.

"We can't afford another three years like the last six," Mr Abbott said in his opening statement. He also vowed that his government would stop asylum-seeker boats embarking on the dangerous journey to Australia.

"Mr Rudd talks about a new way.Well, if you want a new way you've got to choose a new government."

Mr Abbott also countered Mr Rudd's accusation that, if elected, the conservatives would embark on billions of dollars of spending cuts, including in government services.

"I think our country, I think the people at home who are watching this deserve better than a cheap scare campaign from the prime minister of this country," Mr Abbott said.

"This idea that the coalition is ready with a great big scalpel to slash health, to slash education, to slash jobs is simply wrong."

The latest Galaxy poll showed that while it remained a tight race, Labor's primary vote fell from 40 per cent to 38 per cent while Mr Abbott's Liberal/National coalition rose from 44 per cent to 45 per cent.

In a two-party race between Labor and the conservative coalition, the government neck and neck with the opposition, at 49 per cent to 51 per cent, according to the poll of 1,002 voters taken at the end of last week.

The gaps were within the poll's margin of error of 3.1 per cent.

The debate also came as Labor lost two candidates in embarrassing circumstances.

Mr Rudd dumped Geoff Lake from the safe Victorian seat of Hotham after revelations that he had abused a disabled woman more than a decade ago during a heated local council meeting.

And in the key election state of Queensland, the Labor candidate, Ken Robertson, resigned as a prospective representative for Kennedy for calling Mr Abbott a "very, very bigoted person".

Mr Rudd led Labor to a 2007 election victory that ended more than a decade of conservative rule. But he was deposed by his Labor colleagues within his first term and replaced by Julia Gillard, the nation's first female leader.

The popular former diplomat, Mr Rudd was reinstalled in June after dismal polling indicated Labor would be wiped out in this year's election if Ms Gillard remained as leader.