AUSTRALIAN prime minister Kevin Rudd has called a general election for 7 September, barely six weeks after he toppled former leader Julia Gillard in a party-room vote, ending a turbulent three years in power for the minority Labour government.
Mr Rudd, who was dumped by his centre-left party in June 2010, has generated a spike in public support since he returned but conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott is still favourite to win power.
Mr Rudd’s Labour government could fall with the loss of just one of the 150 seats in parliament. His government currently holds 71 seats, the opposition 72, with one Green and six independent cross-benchers. Mr Rudd returned as prime minister on 26 June after he toppled Ms Gillard, with a third of her cabinet also stepping down.
His party has been in power since late 2007 and helped Australia’s economy avoid recession following the 2008 global financial crisis, aided by a mining boom fuelled by resources demand from China and India.
However, a budget update on Friday showed Australia’s economic growth is slowing as the mining boom ends, with unemployment rising, and the manufacturing sector in particular shedding jobs.
Mr Rudd yesterday announced the election date in an email to his supporters, telling them “it’s on”, after visiting governor-general Quentin Bryce, to dissolve the current parliament.
“We’ve got one hell of a fight on our hands,” he said, later acknowledging to reporters he would lose power if current internal Labour polling was borne out at the election.
The latest polls show Mr Rudd has lifted Labour’s support to give the government a chance of victory, although the respected Newspoll in late July still had Labour trailing the opposition 48 per cent to 52 per cent.
But the opinion polls also show that more voters prefer Mr Rudd, a 55-year-old Chinese-speaking former diplomat, as prime minister than opposition leader Mr Abbott, a former Roman Catholic seminarian and journalist.
Mr Abbott called Mr Rudd’s government “dysfunctional” and said infighting would continue if he was returned. The opposition would control government spending and stop the controversial flow of boats from Indonesia carrying asylum seekers, he said.
“It’s really about who is more fair dinkum,” Mr Abbott told reporters, using an Australian phrase for honesty or fairness.
Analyst Nick Economou said polls have not swung back to Mr Rudd enough to put Labour in a winning position, particularly in marginal seats in the outer suburbs of Australia’s major cities.
“Rudd has undertaken a risky strategy … I’m not sure that Labour’s message is resonating in key marginal seats,” the analystsaid. “I can’t see that he can win.”
Online bookmaker Sportsbet.com said current projections had Mr Rudd winning 65 seats and Abbott’s Conservatives 82.
Mr Abbott has built a strong lead in opinion polls with his campaign to abolish a controversial carbon tax, which he has blamed for pushing up electricity prices and for job losses.
He has also won support for his strong stance against asylum seekers who arrive by boat, with refugee policy set to play a leading role in the election.
Since returning to office, Mr Rudd has announced Australia’s toughest measures to deter asylum seekers, saying anyone who arrived by boat would be sent to either Papua New Guinea or Nauru for processing and resettlement.