Australia's first female PM, desperately seeking a mandate
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She’s been prime minister for just eight weeks after mounting a shock challenge that deposed the incumbent. Now, Australia’s Julia Gillard is set to face judgement day this Saturday. The country’s first female PM is searching for a mandate at the polls – and snapping at her heels is an opposition party within a whisker of victory.
She may be intelligent and good-humoured, but the manner in which Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd, the man who made her deputy prime minister, has left a sour taste in the mouths of the voting public.
Since Rudd tearfully slipped into the background after just three years on the job, Gillard has been in a hurry to establish credibility.
This is something her Liberal Party rival, Tony Abbott, has delighted in taunting her with, along with internal Labor leaks that have left Gillard red-faced over allegations she privately questioned promises made to the public.
A survey this week put Abbott only four percentage points behind Labor, a margin that would have been unthinkable in December when he became the third opposition leader to take the Liberal Party reins since it lost government in 2007.
Labor has put its economic record at the centre of the five-week campaign, claiming credit for bringing Australia through the financial crisis without entering recession – the only advanced industrial country to do so.
Equally high on the agenda is immigration, with both the government and opposition unveiling tough policies to counter the steady stream of people-smuggling boats arriving at the northern coast.
Labor has hit trouble over its plans for a regional processing centre because of a lack of clarity on location and timing, and lukewarm support from neighbouring countries.
Abbott's Liberal/National coalition prefers turning boats around at sea and returning to the harsh policy of mandatory detention in far-flung Pacific nations, pioneered by former conservative leader John Howard.
The debate polarises moderates and conservatives and has hit home with the public, which opinion polls have shown is increasingly concerned by the thousands of arrivals by boat.
Gillard, herself an immigrant from Wales, concedes the race is on a knife’s edge.
"I think we are heading towards one of the closest, tightest races in Australia's history," the 48-year-old Gillard said as the final campaign week began.
"It's going to be a nail-biter of a Saturday night. I think this is going to be one of the closest races the nation has ever seen."
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