Australia's political leaders have made their final pleas to voters ahead of Saturday's federal election. The conservative Prime Minister John Howard is widely tipped to lose power after more than a decade in office. His rival, Labor's Kevin Rudd, says Australia needs new leadership. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
Australia's political fate is now in the hands of 13.5 million voters.
Recent opinion polls have consistently put Labor ahead of John Howard's conservative coalition government. One prominent newspaper says 'Howard Needs A Miracle' to win.
Mr. Howard became prime minister in 1996 and has overseen a period of unprecedented economic growth. His government has forged closer trade ties with the United States as well as China and Japan. Unemployment is at a 30-year low.
John Howard, 68, has campaigned strongly on the strength of the economy and firmly believes he can win another term in office despite what the opinions polls say.
"They couldn't be more wrong. My heart is in getting the coalition across the line," he said. "To those people who are still undecided, if you think the country is heading in the right direction then you shouldn't change the government."
Climate change, education and health care are crucial election issues. Both parties have promised multi-billion dollar tax cuts and in many areas there is little to choose between Labor and Mr. Howard's conservatives.
Labor's Kevin Rudd, however, has promised to immediately sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which the Howard government has refused to do, claiming it would damage Australia's economy.
Labor has also pledged to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq whereas Mr. Howard says the soldiers will stay indefinitely. Both sides of the political divide support Australia's involvement in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.
Rudd, a 50-year-old former diplomat, describes himself as an 'economic conservative' to appeal to voters struggling with mortgages after a series of interest rate rises.
The Labor leader says it is time for change.
"After 11 years Mr. Howard has lost touch with working families. He's become so used to being in office that he no longer understands what fairness actually means," Rudd said. "After 11 years Mr. Howard has become stuck in the past."
Labor needs 16 additional seats in the 150-member House of Representatives to win the election. Australians will also cast ballots for the Senate, the upper house of parliament.
Voting in Australia is compulsory and the results of the election are expected late Saturday.