AUSTRALIA’S conservative opposition swept to power on Saturday, ending six years of Labor Party rule and winning over a disenchanted public by promising to end an unpopular tax on carbon emissions.
The Liberal-National coalition said it intends to boost a flagging economy and bring about political stability after years of in-fighting between Labor ministers. Tony Abbott, 55, a former trainee priest who was born in London, will become prime minister.
Outgoing premier Kevin Rudd told supporters: “I know that Labor hearts are heavy across the nation tonight, and as your prime minister and as your parliamentary leader of the great Australian Labor Party, I accept responsibility.
“I gave it my all, but it was not enough for us to win.”
Abbott is leader of the Liberal Party, a centre-right movement intent on cutting taxes, which runs a coalition with the smaller National Party, representing farmers and rural voters, together with three small regional parties.
A victory for the Liberal-National coalition comes despite the relative unpopularity of Abbott, a former Roman Catholic seminarian and Rhodes scholar. He has struggled to connect with female voters and was once dubbed “unelectable” by opponents and even some supporters.
But voters were largely disillusioned with Labor and Rudd, after a years-long power struggle between him and his former deputy, Julia Gillard.
Gillard, who became the first female prime minister after ousting Rudd in a vote in 2010, ended up losing her job to him three years later in a similar internal party coup.
The drama in June, combined with Labor reneging on a promise by imposing a deeply unpopular tax on the biggest carbon polluters, proved damaging.
After claiming victory, Abbott told supporters: “I now look forward to forming a government that is competent, that is trustworthy and which purposefully and steadfastly and methodically sets about delivering on our commitments to you, the Australian people.”
In his concession speech, Rudd said he would be stepping down as party leader, though he was re-elected as MP for Griffith in Brisbane, Queensland. “The Australian people, I believe, deserve a fresh start with our leadership,” he said.
Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke blamed the party’s loss on its inability to unite. “This is an election lost by the government, rather than won by Tony Abbott,” Hawke said.
With more than 90 per cent of votes counted last night,
official figures from the Australian Electoral Commission showed the Liberals ahead 53 per cent to Labor’s 47 per cent.
The coalition was on track to win 91 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, and Labor 54. Six seats were yet to be declared.
Abbott, who becomes Australia’s third prime minister in three months, will aim to end a period of extraordinary political instability as he takes over from the first minority government since the Second World War.
Voters disliked the deals struck between Labor, the minor Greens party and several independents to keep its fragile and sometimes chaotic coalition together. In the last government, Labor had 71 seats compared with the coalition’s 72 and therefore relied on one Green and five independents.
Abbott has vowed to scrap the carbon tax from July 2014 – two years after it was implemented – and introduce taxpayer-funded incentives for polluters to operate cleaner.
It is unclear whether Abbott will be able to pass the changes through parliament, as the Greens hold significant power in the Senate, but he has threatened to hold early elections if the upper house thwarts him.
The Senate saw 40 of the 72 seats contested yesterday. The Liberal-National coalition stood at 33 last night – significantly short of a majority – with Labor on 25, Greens on eight and with three independents. The Greens are likely to hold the balance of power, although the Age newspaper suggested a small group of right-wing members might also hold sway.
Abbott inherits a slowing economy, hurt by the cooling of a mining boom that kept the rich nation out of recession during the global financial crisis.
Australia’s new government has promised to slash foreign aid as it concentrates on returning the budget to surplus. Declining corporate tax revenues from the mining slowdown forced Labor to break a promise to return the budget to surplus last year.
Abbott has also promised to repeal a tax on coal and iron ore mining companies, which he blames in part for the downturn in the mining boom. The 30 per cent tax on the profits of iron ore and coal miners was designed to cash in on profits from a mineral boom fuelled by Chinese industrial demand.
The tax was forecast to earn the government AU$3 billion (£1.7bn) in its first year, but it collected only AU$126 million (£74m) after six months.
Abbott also faces the thorny challenge of curbing a growing number of asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat.
He promises new policies requiring the navy to turn boats back to Indonesia.
The election is likely to see Australia’s first Aboriginal woman sitting in parliament. Former Olympian Nova Peris is almost certain to win a Senate seat for Labor in the Northern Territory, but final results will not be known for days.
Less likely is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s bid for a Senate seat in Victoria state.
Abbott will become one of the world’s highest-paid political leaders with a salary of £298,000, compared with Barack Obama’s £255,000 and David Cameron’s £142,500.
Australian MPs are also among the highest-paid politicians in the world, making about £114,700 a year each.