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After party coup, Australia votes in knife-edge election

Australians head to the polls for a snap election on Saturday after a tumultuous two months heralded by the sudden ouster of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a party coup in June.

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On Thursday, with the country’s general election just two days away, news broke on Australian media that Harry, a crocodile credited with psychic powers equal to those of World Cup-phenomenon Paul the Octopus, had picked Julia Gillard of the Labor Party to win Saturday’s poll.

The decision to consult the crocodile is a measure of how close the contest is expected to be.

The snap election, called by Prime Minister Gillard, comes less than two months after she replaced former Labor PM Kevin Rudd in a surprise party revolt.

Rudd was forced to step down on June 24 amid fears his aloof style and perceived weakness would lead his party to electoral defeat.

His successor faces Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott, a maverick conservative once derided for posing in swimming trunks and now tantalisingly close to a remarkable upset.

Gillard, a plain-speaking daughter of British migrants and Australia’s first female prime minister, seemed set for a comfortable election win upon her arrival to power.

But the 48-year-old incumbent has seen her lead erode amid a stuttering start to her premiership and lingering unease about the manner of her predecessor’s ouster.

‘Stop the boats’

Gillard, who served as deputy prime minister under Rudd, has taken credit for steering Australia away from recession and reducing unemployment even as the world’s richest countries floundered in the economic crisis.

Much of the campaign talk, however, has hinged on the issues of immigration and refugees.

Both candidates have said they would seek to temper the country’s generous immigration policy and cut the number of annual entrants.

The immigration issue has also been played up by a recent rise in the number of asylum seekers, and consequently, alarmist headlines in the tabloid press and opposition cries of “stop the boats”.

Abbot has said he would not shy away from turning around refugee boats at sea, and has pledged to resume the detention of asylum seekers on the Pacific island of Nauru, a policy initiated in 2001 by John Howard, the former conservative prime minister.

Gillard has dismissed the so-called Pacific Solution as “costly and ineffective”, only to then propose setting up detention centres in East Timor.

The Green factor

With Labor and the Liberals locked in stalemate, the Greens have emerged as potential kingmakers. Analysts say the party could hold the balance of power in the Senate after Saturday’s vote.

The Greens have cashed in on the electorate’s growing apprehension about global warming and its effects on the country, already one of the world’s driest.

In contrast, Gillard has appeared wary of reviving the environmental platform embraced by her predecessor, whose decision to shelve an ambitious carbon emissions trade scheme earlier this year precipitated his fall from grace.

The Labor candidate has spoken in favour of a carbon tax, but said she would convene a panel of citizens to shape the policy, in a move that has attracted widespread derision.

Gillard also said she would resist Green calls for further levies on the mining industry, which is widely regarded as the backbone of Australia’s economy.

Her conservative rival, who once described climate change science as “absolute crap”, has pledged to match Labor’s target of 5 percent carbon emissions cut by 2020, but has ruled out a carbon tax.

The gender divide

The outcome of the poll could ultimately hinge on a gender divide in the electorate.

Polls suggest Abbot, a devout 52-year-old Catholic, is likely to pick up the largest share of the male vote. But his chances of victory have been hampered by his lack of appeal among female voters.

This has been attributed in part to his opposition to the abortion drug, RU486, while he served as health secretary in the Howard administration. At the time, he was confronted by demonstrators with placards reading, "Get your rosaries off my ovaries".

In a bid to soothe female voters Abbot has proposed a parental leave scheme, much to the dismay of the more business-friendly colleagues in his own camp.

 

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