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Australian election goes down to the wire

Australia faces the prospect of a hung parliament after the tightest election in decades, with early projections suggesting no party will win an outright majority.

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Australia faced the prospect of its first hung parliament in 70 years after Saturday's general election, with neither the Labor government nor the conservative opposition likely to pick up the 76 seats required for an outright majority.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard of the Labor Party described the race as "too close to call", saying she would reach out to newly-elected independents to form a majority.

Her main opponent, conservative leader Tony Abbott, hailed a "good result" and told supporters he stood "ready to govern".

Early exit polls had tipped Gillard's Labor to secure a wafer-thin majority, but tight contests in crucial marginal seats have pushed the race down to the last vote.

With counting well underway, state broadcaster ABC said the opposition had edged ahead with 71 seats to the government's 69.

Analysts say an indecisive result could leave the country in political limbo for several days.

Rudd ouster

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.

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 soon saw her lead erode amid a stuttering start to her premiership and lingering unease about the manner of her predecessor’s ouster.

Her slide in the polls precipitated the meteoric rise of Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott, a maverick conservative once derided for posing in swimming trunks and now tantalisingly close to a remarkable upset.

‘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, amid alarmist headlines in the tabloid press about a recent rise in the number of asylum seekers 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.

But the much-trumpeted plan appeared to fall through after it emerged she had failed to secure the backing of the authorities in Dili, the capital of 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.

 

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