Rudd ramps up policy pressure as poll support grows

By Greg Ansley

Labor may look for an early election to take advantage of party's spectacular resurgence.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Photo / AP
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Photo / AP

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has firmly taken control of Australia's political agenda, leaving Opposition Leader Tony Abbott struggling as polls show the major parties neck-and-neck in the race to the coming election.

When the election will be called is still unknown although speculation is growing that it may come sooner rather than later to take full advantage of Labor's spectacular resurgence.

The timing will be crucial. Labor needs to balance the potential gains from going early while support is soaring against the possibility that the flush might not be as solid as it seems, and the benefits of waiting until the new Government has consolidated and locked in support.

A Nielsen Poll in Fairfax newspapers yesterday confirmed the swing back to the Government since Rudd's ousting of predecessor Julia Gillard two weeks ago, putting Labor and the Coalition 50-50 in the two-party preferred vote that decides Australian elections.

Nielsen also placed Rudd ahead by 55 per cent to 41 per cent as preferred prime minister, reflecting the personal unpopularity that has marked Abbott's term as Opposition leader and adding to the difficulty he now faces in fighting off the new Labor ascendancy.

Newspoll and Morgan polls since Gillard's departure have shown similar results, focusing both sides' attention firmly on gaining the extra seats they need to govern in their own right. On the polls so far, Australia is again heading towards a hung Parliament and another minority government.

Labor needs to pick up more seats, with the retirements of New South Wales independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, whose support underwrote Gillard's Government, and the probable loss of their seats to the Coalition. Labor is also likely to lose other supportive crossbench seats held by former Labor MP Craig Thomson - who faces fraud and theft charges relating to his time as national secretary of the Health Services Union - and disgraced former Speaker Peter Slipper.

But polling has shown Labor has picked up significant support in the key states of Queensland and New South Wales, and shored up its position elsewhere. A ReachTel poll at the weekend found Labor could gain six seats in Queensland.

Abbott has said he would not govern through a deal with independents or minor parties, instead targeting an outright majority. But he has lost the control of the political agenda he held for much of Gillard's truncated term, short-armed by the return of Rudd and Labor's subsequent resurgence, and by the dilution of the main thrust of his attack on the Government.

Abbott relied on a narrow band of incessantly repeated soundbites - hammering at the legitimacy and competence of Gillard's leadership, trust, the carbon tax and asylum seekers. With Gillard gone and Rudd in her place, a huge hole has been knocked in his strategy and Rudd has moved rapidly to reframe policy ahead of the election. He has toughened his stance on asylum seekers, gaining support from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for his argument that this is an international issue that requires a regional approach. Indonesia has also rejected Abbott's turn-back-the-boats policy.

Rudd and Immigration Minister Tony Burke were in Papua New Guinea yesterday drumming up further support for a regional approach.

Rudd further intends dropping the carbon tax and moving to an emissions trading scheme a year ahead of schedule, reducing the price of carbon and improving the finances of the average household by more than A$400 a year. The move, welcomed by business, adds to the woes of an Opposition increasingly flat-footed, on the defensive and lacking, so far, a convincing policy counterattack.

Abbott is dismissing Labor's resurgence as an expected sugar hit - "My instinct is that what [voters] are really doing is showing their relief at the departure of an unpopular Prime Minister" - and continuing to focus on asylum seekers and the carbon tax.

Rudd remains cautious. "The truth is we face a marathon and we've barely run round the park so far."

Fairfax-Nielsen poll

Labor

39 per cent primary support (up 10).
50 per cent after preferences.

Coalition

44 per cent primary support (down 3).
50 per cent after preferences.

Preferred Prime Minister

55 per cent Kevin Rudd, Labor.
41 per cent Tony Abbott, Coalition.

- AAP

- NZ Herald

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