Australian PM Gillard faces poll battle of her career

Australian PM Julia Gillard calling a general election - 17 July 2010 PM Julia Gillard has risen rapidly to the top of Australian politics

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Against a backdrop of political intrigue and treachery, Australians will vote in what is likely to be a bruising federal election on August 21.

Less than a month after unexpectedly toppling her predecessor, Julia Gillard - the country's first female Prime Minister - faces the greatest challenge of her career.

"In this forthcoming election campaign I'll be asking the Australian people for their trust. (It) is about the choice as to whether we move Australia forward or go back," Ms Gillard told a news conference in Canberra.

"I believe our nation...can face the future with confidence. The best days of this nation are in front of it, not behind it," she said.

Ruthlessness

Born in Wales, Julia Gillard is regarded as a bright and formidable politician.

Her shock ousting of Kevin Rudd following his slump in the opinion polls showed the utter ruthlessness that has helped the daughter of British migrant workers rise to the apex of Australian politics.

There is, however, a gulf between selection - by party power brokers - and election - by the people - although the bookmakers are tipping a Gillard victory.

Her conservative rival, Tony Abbott, who trained to be a priest and is equally combative but can be impulsive, believes voters will be uneasy at the callous way that Mr Rudd was ambushed by Labor heavyweights.

Suspected illegal immigrants from East Timor arrive at Australian immigration detention centre, Christmas Island Opposition leader Tony Abbott has proposed sending asylum boats back.

"He wasn't a great Prime Minister but he deserved to face the judgement of the people and not be executed in the middle of the night by the unions and the factional warlords," he told reporters in Brisbane.

Late last year, Mr Abbott, who was born in London to Australian parents, staged a coup of his own, when he narrowly seized control of the opposition from millionaire colleague Malcolm Turnbull.

Immigration debate

Border protection will be a key theme as both major parties try to convince the electorate they have a firm enough hand to stop a steady flow of asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia's northern waters.

Julia Gillard has appeared muddled in the early exchanges of a vociferous debate on immigration after proposing a regional refugee transit centre for neighbouring East Timor without first securing an agreement with the authorities in Dili.

Tony Abbott has offered a far more blunt policy of sending the asylum boats back.

Start Quote

We haven't seen a first-term government defeated since the Great Depression”

End Quote Antony Green Analyst, ABC News

Climate change will be another central issue over the next five weeks of frantic, coast-to-coast electioneering, along with the domestic staples of most campaigns: education, health reform and the economy.

Ms Gillard has promised to return the budget to surplus within two years. She believes Labor's smart fiscal management and stimulus spending worth A$52bn ($45bn) saved Australia from recession during the global slowdown.

Fiercely contested

Critics, though, have accused the government of wasting money and Mr Abbott described the leadership change from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard as a "seamless transition from incompetence to incompetence."

The opposition needs a swing of 2.3% to win the election, or 17 seats, although ABC News analyst Antony Green says for that to happen the conservatives would need to defy history.

"We haven't seen a first-term government defeated since the Great Depression, so it is eight decades. It is unusual for a government to increase its vote at the end of its first-term. Most of them have a declining vote," he said.

The bookmakers are tipping a Labor victory, although many observers say the election on 21 August will be tight and fiercely contested.

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