Australian Election Cliffhanger

A combination photo shows Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (L) and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. (Getty Images)

In a few hours the voters of Australia will decide their next government and leader. And, according to opinion polls, it could be a cliffhanger.

It's not the scenario the incumbent Labor party had in mind a few months ago when its factions got together and dumped Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd as prime minister before he could finish his first term in office.

Rudd's once sky-high popularity had gone stale and he lacked factional support among his parliamentary colleagues within the party. When push came to shove, they replaced him with his then-deputy, Julia Gillard.

Many saw that as a smart move. Gillard became Australia's first woman PM. Unmarried (though in a longterm relationship), childless, and not religious, she has carved out an image of herself as a street-smart, modern career woman ready for the rest of the 21st century. Within weeks she called the August 21 poll and looked like a sure thing.

But it has not gone to plan.

The Opposition—the Liberal-National coalition—has clawed things back. Its leader Tony Abbott—a suburban father, devout Roman Catholic, and unabashed social conservative —has effectively matched Gillard, who has struggled to look prime ministerial on the hustings. 

Abbott has pointedly attacked the government on taxes, economic management, and (perhaps most emotive of all) how to handle Middle Eastern and Asian asylum seekers who come to Australia on rickety boats via neighboring Indonesia. Whichever side wins will face some tough choices in its policies toward Asia

All in all, though, it has been a lackluster campaign as far as the performances of the two leaders are concerned. In many ways they have merely shadowed each other on policies and promises.

More interesting is how the electorate has become polarized in spite of this. Pre-ballot polling shows the two sides are evenly placed and that it could be the closest result in 50 years or so. Some are seeing a late swing to Abbott or Gillard just holding on. Others are talking of a "hung parliament."

It's going to be a very interesting Saturday.

About the Author

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Geoff Spencer oversees Asia Society's online, public relations, and marketing departments. He has over 25 years of experience as an Asia-based journalist.