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Election Too Close to Call as Australia Prepares to Vote


Opinion polls in Australia indicate the August 21 federal election will be a tight contest. The governing Labor party has asked voters to trust its economic expertise, while the conservative opposition argues the electorate must not be mislead by a spendthrift government.

Bob Hawke, Australia's third longest-serving prime minister, greeted delegates at Labor's official campaign kick-off in Brisbane earlier this week.

"What we've got hit by in this country was the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression and the Labor government did better than any government in the developed world," Hawke said.

The party's leaders are keen to portray themselves as sound economic managers. They say Labor's massive stimulus packages helped Australia avoid recession while other advanced economies struggled during the global slowdown.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has invoked the memory of another party champion, Ben Chiefley, who led Australia's recovery after World War II.

"Ben Chifley spoke to us about that light on the hill," Gillard noted. "In a different age, in a different nation, in a different time, President Barak Obama inspired a nation by saying, 'Yes we can.' I am asking you, when you vote on Saturday, to say as you cast that vote, 'Yes, we will. Yes, we will move forward together.' Friends, that's what next Saturday is all about and I ask you to say that we will move forward together."

Main issues

Immigration, education and health care have been concerns in the campaign but the overarching issue has been the economy. Booming exports of minerals to China helped to accelerate growth and unemployment has been hovering around 5 percent - low compared with most developed economies in the past two years.

The Liberal Party opposition leader, Tony Abbott, accuses the left-of-center government of wasting billions of dollars with unnecessary stimulus payments and frivolous efforts. He says that spending makes Australia more vulnerable to future global economic shocks.

"Plainly if the world changes we have to respond accordingly," Abbott said. "But the point I make is that we will be in a much weaker position to respond to any new international crisis because of the spending spree that this government has been on. I mean, the government likes to boast about its economic credentials. This mob has turned a $20 billion [Australian dollars] surplus into a $57 billion [Australian dollars] deficit."

Pollsters

Opinion polls have fluctuated during the five-week campaign. Most suggest this Saturday's vote will be tight. Political analysts here say the policies of both major parties are reasonably similar, with few clear distinctions.

On immigration, for example, both Labor and the Liberal opposition have promised tough new measures to protect Australia's borders by sending illegal migrants to detention center in neighboring countries to submit asylum claims. There have been constant squabbles about which party would best manage the economy.

Conservative lawmaker Andrew Robb is among the many to think the vote will be close.

"I mean, it is remarkable that we are on the edge of a win at this stage, given that we are a first-term opposition," Robb said.

No first-term government in Australia has lost an election for almost 80 years. However, Labor Foreign Minister Stephen Smith thinks the election will be decided in several key marginal constituencies.

"It is [on] a knife edge. I mean, I see a couple of general polls which are either 50-50 or, you know, a couple of points one way or the other. … This will get down to 20 or 30 seats," Smith said.

Political news commentators say both major parties have chosen a cautious path, trotting out slogans and well-rehearsed speeches because they are worried that too many blunders could cost them the election.

What voters think

As election day approaches, some voters appear rather underwhelmed by it all.

"There is nobody to take much interest in," a female voter said. "They are all saying the same things over and over and who to vote for even now a couple of days out, I do not know. Nobody really commits to anything. They try to sound like they will. I think it is too much built on personalities."

Voting in Australia is compulsory. The electoral system uses both preferential voting and proportional representation for elections for the lower and upper houses of parliament.

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