Australian election - 5 days to go

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard will today officially launch the Government's election campaign amid further signs she may cling to power next Saturday.

Despite gloom about marginal seats in Queensland and New South Wales, an overview of conflicting and volatile polls suggests a slim national majority and gains in the southern states could push Labor over the line.

But the outcome remains far from certain as the contest enters its final week, with both leaders predicting a nail-biting end to a campaign that will determine if Gillard becomes the nation's first elected female prime minister, or a brief footnote in its political history.

"I think we are heading towards one of the closest, tightest races in Australia's history," Gillard said. "I think this will be a photo finish."

Opposition leader Tony Abbott said he would be running hard right down to the wire.

"This is going to be a very hard election to win because we're running again an incumbent Commonwealth Government, five state Labor governments, and a A$1 billion ($1.2 billion) union support operation."

Short of a crushing defeat, Abbott will have stamped his authority on the Liberal Party, taking the Opposition from predictions of overwhelming defeat to within grasp of power as the fifth week of campaigning starts.

He will be fighting a five-day agenda that favours the Government.

Labor's campaign launch in Brisbane this morning will give the Government the lion's share of media coverage, flowing into Abbott's final keynote address to the National Press Club tomorrow.

The only potential spoiler will be the latest Newspoll findings to be published ahead of the launch this morning - although if this shows any further advantage to the Government Gillard's message will gain added clout.

The launch will help Labor focus on its policy rollout, with Gillard to have the final say on Thursday in her National Press Club closing address.

Although Abbott will have the added forum tonight of a live session with 300 western Sydney voters on ABC TV's Q&A programme, Gillard will have the weight of set-piece appearances behind her.

Abbott has been seeking another "town hall" meeting similar to last week's session with 200 undecided voters at Rooty Hill in western Sydney, which most commentators gave to the Opposition leader. The two leaders were questioned separately from the floor in a region whose marginal seats will be crucial to the election outcome.

Abbott wanted a second session in Brisbane - surrounded by another block of vital marginals - but yesterday backed away from a counter-offer from Gillard to meet together on stage for a one-hour debate on the economy, followed by questions from the floor.

Both leaders will be sharpening their closing focus on NSW and Queensland, where a cluster of marginals could hand Abbott the 17 extra seats he needs to win office.

Both have unpopular Labor state governments and, while federal and state politics do not usually flow into each other, many commentators believe the Labor brand may take a general hammering.

"I understand in some parts of the country there is disappointment with state Labor governments," Gillard said. "It's just a question really of people looking at what this election is about and making sure ... they're voting on [national] issues."

Polling remains volatile.

A Neilsen poll in Saturday's Fairfax newspapers said Labor led nationally by 53 to 47 per cent in the two-party preferred vote that decides election outcomes, but depended heavily on a record flow of Greens preferences, with losses to Labor in Queensland and NSW.

A Galaxy poll of 4000 voters in 20 marginal seats, in yesterday's News Ltd tabloids, gave the Coalition a 51.4 to 48.6 per cent two-party lead, and sufficient marginal gains to win the seats it needs.

But the Galaxy result was challenged by ABC election expert Antony Green, who said Labor gains in Victoria and South Australia could offset these losses, and by strategic marketing analyst Andrew Catsaras.

A Newspoll analysis of marginal seats in the Weekend Australian also supported an emerging view that the Opposition could fail to win enough seats to eject Gillard.

Yesterday a new Morgan poll showed Labor leading the two-party vote by 51 to 49 per cent nationally, with the Coalition ahead in NSW, Queensland and Western Australia, but Labor leading in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.

Pollster Gary Morgan said this result was likely to result in a hung Parliament - the first in 70 years - something other commentators also believe is a real possibility. The three independents likely to hold the balance of power after such a result have already agreed to discuss their response if neither side wins outright.

The Morgan poll said voters saw the Coalition as the best manager of the economy, tax and living costs, and Labor better in health and education.

SOUNDBITES
Julia Gillard, noting polls showing her well behind in key Sydney seats: "I understand in some parts of the country there's disappointment with state Labor governments."

Tony Abbott on the same polls, still declaring himself the underdog: "I am running against big money, big factions. I am running against big politics, but I think we can do it."

ABC election analyst Antony Green, doubting the polls in his online blog: "Someone has made an absolute howler in trying to turn polls in 20 marginal seats into a national figure."

Sunday Age national political reporter Josh Gordon: "Unless you're a 'Kath and Kim' voter in a marginal seat, this election is not for you."

Annabel Crabb, in ABC online's The Pulse: "One of Mr Abbott's best weapons going into this final week is one even his critics concede: he's likeable."