, SYDNEY, Jul 26 – Australia\’s election race Monday tightened dramatically as Prime Minister Julia Gillard\’s new climate plan flopped with voters and the opposition chief performed strongly in the only leaders\’ debate.
A Newspoll survey showed the ruling Labor party\’s lead slashed to 52 percent against 48 percent for the opposition Coalition when voters were asked to choose one or other party, down from a 10-point lead just a week earlier.
The figure matched the reading in mid-June, shortly before Gillard\’s shock ousting of Kevin Rudd in a backroom party coup blamed on the ex-leader\’s falling approval ratings.
Gillard\’s personal approval slumped seven points to 41 percent, and dissatisfaction rose eight points to 37 percent after her announcement of a "citizens assembly" to consult on climate change was roundly panned by critics.
"We think that this (assembly) has been interpreted as a deferral rather than action," Newspoll chief executive Martin O\’Shannessy told Sky News.
The survey of 1,720 voters was completed before Sunday\’s TV debate between Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott, which was moved forward to avoid a clash with the "MasterChef" reality show finale.
Although neither candidate delivered a knock-out blow in the debate, several commentators praised a measured performance by Abbott, a fitness fanatic nicknamed the "Mad Monk" who is known for a more impulsive style.
"This was Tony Abbott\’s best moment," said The Australian columnist Paul Kelly. "He may not have outpointed Julia Gillard but he exceeded expectations and looked, as never before, a viable prime minister."
Abbott now appears a more potent threat in the August 21 polls, which Labor has never looked like losing until recent months when Rudd\’s record ratings suddenly fell and he was unceremoniously dumped, disquieting voters.
The elections, where Labor is fighting to avoid becoming the first one-term government since World War II, are seen as a battle over immigration, the economy and climate change.
However, Gillard\’s plans for a refugee centre in East Timor have been mired in confusion, while her 12-month consultation of a "citizens assembly" on introducing a carbon tax outraged environmentalists and the Greens party.
"I\’ve always believed this was going to be a tough, close contest," Gillard, Australia\’s first woman prime minister, told a campaign event in Tasmania.
"It\’s a tough, close contest and it will be a photo-finish on election day."
Father-of-three Abbott, who once trained to become a Catholic priest, also introduced his wife Margaret to the campaign on Monday as he seeks to contrast himself with Gillard, an unmarried atheist.
The red-headed, Welsh-born Gillard, said she would not follow suit by bringing her partner Tim Mathieson, a one-time hairdresser, on the campaign trail.
"He is not a Labor party official or a candidate or a minister so you won\’t see him out on the campaign trail in that sense," she said. "But obviously Tim will be supporting me during the campaign and he\’s been doing that."
Also on Monday, Treasurer Wayne Swan announced new figures showing the budget would return to surplus by 3.5 billion dollars (3.1 billion US) in 2013, slightly higher than predicted earlier this month.
The conservative coalition needs a 2.3 percent swing to return to power, less than three years after Rudd\’s convincing election victory ended its 11 years of rule in November 2007.
The election is expected to be largely decided by key marginal seats in the mining states of Queensland and Western Australia, and in parts of western Sydney known for their large immigrant populations.
Preliminary figures showed "MasterChef" drew 5.74 million viewers and the debate was watched by 4.29 million, vindicating the decision to reschedule.