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Australian election clock ticks down on divisive campaign

05 september 2013, 17:53
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A poisonous Australian election campaign reaches its climax on Saturday with conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott on track to become the nation's next prime minister at the expense of Labor's Kevin Rudd, AFP reports.

With more than one million votes already cast and a blackout on political adverts kicking in Thursday, the two rivals launched into a last-ditch blitz to sway voters -- Abbott in Brisbane and Rudd in Canberra.

Opinion polls show Abbott as the clear favourite to become Australia's 29th prime minister, with the latest predictions showing he will take a landslide 87 seats to ruling Labor's 60.

Rudd has struggled for traction after toppling Julia Gillard, Australia's first female leader, just weeks before calling the election -- vengeance for his own ouster at her hands just before the 2010 polls.

Voters have reacted with distaste over the brutal party coups, as well as the lowbrow tone of a campaign which has seen both sides descend into cheap shots and personality politics.

Undeterred, Rudd has vowed to fight until the polls close with the competing camps targetting electorates held by slender margins, hoping to secure what can sometimes come down to just a few hundred critical votes.

Some 1.1 million of Australia's 14.7 million registered voters have already cast their ballot at early polling centres and another 1.3 million will vote by post.

There is a ban on election ads running in the final days of the campaign, meaning the leaders and their candidates have to hit the hustings in the hopes of reaching uncommitted voters.

According to political analysts some 80 percent of electors have typically made up their minds by the time Australia's polls roll around every three years, leaving the campaign focused on so-called "swinging voters".

"These are neither interested nor involved in the issues, do not much care about the outcome, are largely voting because they are obliged to do it, and will make up their minds on the day -- perhaps as they stand in line waiting to receive their ballots," said Barry Jones, former Labor minister and a Melbourne University fellow.

"Reaching these voters is not by raising serious issues, setting out a vision or challenge, it's by emphasising fear or by entertaining them, appealing to quick jokey references or offering bribes, the appeal to greed."

The result: a campaign dominated by slogans and 'gotcha' moments, with a host of eccentric minor party candidates including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Titanic-building mining billionaire Clive Palmer adding a surreal dimension.

Instead of debate on substantial policy issues the five-week election race has focussed on picture opportunities in hard hats and safety vests at worksites, snapping self-portraits with children at schools.

That the conservatives have adopted Labor's policies on health, disability and education has not helped the contest for ideas, nor Rudd and Abbott's battle for the most punitive stance on refugees in the name of "border security".

There have been bunfights over spending plans, with the opposition refusing to release its costings until the eleventh hour, now due on Thursday, while Rudd has allowed complaints about bias from Rupert Murdoch's Australian newspapers to distract him.

Gaffe-prone Abbott has made several blunders -- he touted a female candidate's sex appeal as well of those of his own daughters, referred to the Syria conflict as "baddies versus baddies", and said no one person could be the "suppository" of all wisdom.

A suppository is a method of delivering drugs through bodily orifices.

Abbott's plan to buy up rickety Indonesian fishing boats to keep them from falling into the hands of people-smugglers was dismissed as "crazy" in both Australia and Indonesia

But Rudd has never managed to shrug off the legacy of a divisive era in Australian politics which saw two serving prime ministers lose their jobs in party votes that stunned the nation.

The whole affair left a bad taste in many voters' mouths, according to Monash University politics analyst Nick Economou.

"They had to try and give the impression that the last three years didn't happen, that Kevin Rudd is absolutely new, and that voters were being asked to cast judgment on a government that was effectively two months old. But that's just not worked because the voters are not that superficial," he said.

"The problem for Labor is that voters have made up their mind, they probably made up their mind quite a long time ago, and there's nothing they can do to re-engage the electorate."

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