Aus govt: Abbott dodges debate
Sydney - Australia's government accused opposition chief Tony Abbott of dodging a TV election clash with Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Wednesday as they prepared to appear separately at the same town hall meeting.
The government said the conservative Abbott, who has dragged Gillard to within a whisker of a shock election defeat, would be "hiding out the back" before facing voters and TV cameras in western Sydney half-an-hour later.
"If he was ready to be the prime minister of Australia, he would be ready to get on stage and debate Julia Gillard tonight," parliamentary employment secretary Jason Clare told Sky News.
The colourful Abbott publicly challenged Gillard to two more head-to-head debates at their only election clash in July, when he was trailing in the polls ahead of the August 21 vote.
But after drawing level with Gillard, Abbott said his busy campaign schedule did not allow for another debate despite both later agreeing to be quizzed by voters at Sydney's Rooty Hill ex-serviceman's club for live TV.
Gillard, the feisty, flame-haired lawyer who last week promised to reveal the "real Julia" as she floundered in the polls, said the famously gaffe-prone Abbott had "cotton wool packed around him" by his advisers.
"I think I came to the decision that the sort of strait-jacket wasn't for me. They do have Tony Abbott in a strait-jacket," she told Channel 10 late on Tuesday.
Gillard and Abbott will face questions from 200 hand-picked voters later in the town hall meeting, dubbed the "Battle of Rooty Hill", just 10 days before elections that remain on a knife-edge.
New voter analysis released by Newspoll showed Gillard's Labour Party was lagging the Liberal/National Coalition in key states, raising the prospect that the opposition will gain the 17 new seats it needs for victory.
But Abbott also came under fire for his shaky grasp of plans to replace the government's Aus$43bn national broadband network with a cheaper patchwork of services relying heavily on wireless.
"If you want to drag me into a technical discussion here, I'm not going to be very good at it," he told ABC TV, when asked to provide details of the policy.
Telecommunications analyst Paul Budde said the admission was "very embarrassing", adding it was "unforgivable that the leader of the opposition misses any basic knowledge on this matter".
Gillard meanwhile unveiled her biggest commitment, a Aus$2.6bn rail link extension for western Sydney, as she courted marginal seats in the region ahead of Wednesday's meeting.
The coalition needs a 2.3% swing to force Labour from power, just three years after its big election win under former leader Kevin Rudd, who was ousted in a party coup in June.