Australian election: Coalition fires biggest guns

By Greg Ansley

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (l), with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Photo / Getty Images
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (l), with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Photo / Getty Images

BRISBANE - Australia's election campaign has narrowed to a final, desperate two weeks as Opposition Leader Tony Abbott fired his biggest guns in Brisbane.

Rival economic managers prepared for a head-on fight today, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard worked to get her campaign on track.

The launch of the Coalition campaign yesterday gave Abbott a clear shot at the nightmare continuing to dog Gillard, and to outline a first-year policy timetable running from the economy to asylum seekers, climate change and organised crime.

But the launch has also allowed Gillard a week to rebuild her strategy, shove the devastating distraction over ousted leader Kevin Rudd into the background, and prepare for her own launch - also in Brisbane - in a week.

That launch will significantly define the final five days of campaigning before polling day on August 21 and enable the Government to focus sharply on the large bloc of undecided voters who will dictate success or failure.

But as Abbott's launch and weekend polls indicated, Labor continues to run a serious risk of remaining burdened with the Rudd debacle - given new and unexpected force by yet another former party leader at the weekend.

After a chilly reconciliation with Rudd on Saturday - at which the pair agreed to campaign separately rather than appear together - Mark Latham aggressively confronted Gillard in a new role as reporter for Channel Nine's 60 Minutes current affairs show.

Latham led Labor to a crushing defeat against former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard and has become an embittered and volatile critic of the Government.

Latham accused Labor of complaining to Channel Nine about his new role and, while Gillard handled herself well, supported by an apology from network head David Gyngell, the nationally televised confrontation did nothing to quell Opposition attacks on a Government that performed "like a soap opera".

"Isn't it great to lead a united political party with a deputy I can trust, a predecessor [John Howard] who's a friend and a former prime minister who's a hero," Abbott told cheering delegates during his launch at Brisbane's riverside Performing Arts Centre.

A new Nielsen poll in Fairfax newspapers at the weekend helped underwrite Abbott's buoyancy: a 51 per cent to 49 per cent lead to the Opposition, with Gillard's lead as preferred prime minister contracting to just 5 points.

But a Newspoll in the Australian said that since Rudd was deposed support for the Government had increased in two crucial marginal seats in Queensland and western Sydney.

As Gillard took the fight to Darwin yesterday, and Rudd hit the streets of the Brisbane suburb of Carindale with local Labor candidate Kerry Rea, more than 1200 Coalition faithful packed the Performing Arts Centre with a long queue of disappointed left outside with a handful of anti-Liberal protesters.

The Coalition's message was simple, distilled down to ridicule of Labor disunity and agony over Rudd, the Government's handling of the economy and asylum seekers, the waste and mismanagement of economic stimulus programmes and its failure to deliver promised policies.

"This is not governing," said Warren Truss, leader of junior Coalition partner the Nationals. "This is loitering without intent."

The Opposition's own thrust was distilled to five key areas: government spending, debt, taxation, asylum seekers and "struggling families".

"Not since 1975 [after the constitutional crisis that dismissed Labor] has there been such a time in Australian politics," Abbott said.

"Our task is nothing less than to save Australia from the worst government in its history."

Abbott said that in its first week in power, a Coalition government would create a debt reduction taskforce chaired by present Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey and Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb, followed by an economic statement and the release of a delayed plan to save the ailing Murray-Darling River basin.

Labor's resources rental tax would also be immediately dumped, a carbon tax would be finally ruled out, and a crackdown on people smugglers would be launched, including mandatory 12-month minimum jail sentences for first-time offenders and 10 years' minimum for repeat offenders.

Abbott would also immediately start negotiations with Nauru President Marcus Stephen - who he met at the weekend - for the re-opening of the "Pacific solution" detention centre closed by Rudd.

Howard's temporary protection visas, granting only limited protection for boat people, would also be re-introduced.

Within his first three months, Abbott would release an economic statement, prepare a fund for programmes to help reduce greenhouse emissions and establish a 15,000member "green army" to repair land degradation, introduce reforms for small business, begin health reforms, and set up a national violent gangs squad.

Abbott said he would also visit Afghanistan to emphasise Australia's commitment to the war.

Rival economic policies will be debated today in a nationally televised clash between Treasurer Wayne Swan and Hockey.

Soundbites

* Former Labor leader Mark Latham, confronting Julia Gillard with claims the party had complained to Channel Nine about his new job reporting the campaign: "Kevin Rudd is the one who's sabotaging your campaign. Have a dig at him instead of having a dig at someone who's just trying to do a job."

* Gillard in response: "Well, nice to see you, Mark, and I hope you enjoy yourlife as a journalist now. Good luck with that."

* National Senator Barnaby Joyce, standing nearby: "It's like a bloody soap opera."

* Nine Network boss David Gyngell, apologising for Latham's "lack of respect": "I'm all for freedom of speech and robust scrutiny of our public figures, but my strong view of today's exchange is that it crossed the line."

* Gillard, on the decision to campaign separately after a frosty reconciliation with Rudd on Saturday: "We're moving into the last twoweeks of the campaign, time is running short and we want to get to speak to as many Australians as possible."

* The Punch website editor David Penberthy, in the Sunday Telegraph: "The Lazarus-like return of Kevin Rudd is one of the weirdest things ever seen in Australian politics."

* Jessica Wight, in the Sydney Morning Herald, on limited coverage about today's debate between Treasurer Wayne Swan and Liberal rival Joe Hockey: "As recently as a year ago, it would have been a tall order to suggest the economy would have to compete for the attention of the electorate"

- NZ Herald

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