Aus leaders to face voters

2010-08-18 09:50

Sydney - Australia's first woman prime minister and her conservative challenger prepared to face voters in a town hall forum on Wednesday, as a new poll predicted a narrow government win in weekend elections.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who deposed elected leader Kevin Rudd in a party coup just eight weeks ago, agreed to the showdown in Brisbane after lengthy squabbling over its format.

Gillard and opposition chief Tony Abbott will be grilled separately by voters at the Brisbane Broncos rugby league club's headquarters after the prime minister backed down on her demand for a head-to-head debate on the economy.

"He's going missing tonight. He doesn't want to give Australians the debate on the economy that they deserve," Gillard told reporters during a campaign stop in Western Australia.

Some commentators said the Welsh-born former lawyer was taking a risk by agreeing to the town hall format after being seen as losing out to Abbott in a similar event in Sydney last week, dubbed the "Battle of Rooty Hill".

"Julia Gillard is beginning to show signs of desperation and fear of losing the election after caving in to Tony Abbott's demands for a people's forum in Brisbane tonight," said a front-page commentary from The Australian newspaper.

"Gillard now appears to be the one desperate to force a mistake from her surprisingly disciplined opponent in front of a Brisbane audience, which still appears hostile to (Gillard's) Labor," it added.

Targeting marginal seats

A survey of 28 000 voters compiled from automated phone calls showed Labor scraping home with a four-seat majority, just avoiding becoming the first single-term government since World War II.

The JWS Research poll, published by the Sydney Morning Herald, found Labor would have lost 15 seats and gained six if polls were held last weekend, giving it 79 of the lower house's 150 seats. Abbott's Coalition was put at 68 seats.

Gillard is promising an economic boost through better education and training, along with improved healthcare helped by Labor's planned national broadband network, which is intended to wire 93% of homes.

Abbott has played heavily on Labor's perceived disunity and accuses the government of overspending during the financial crisis, when massive stimulus helped Australia avoid a recession.

The opposition needs a swing of 2.3%to drive Labor from power in Saturday's polls, less than three years after Rudd ended right-winger John Howard's 11 years in office.

Both sides are targeting marginal seats in resource-rich Queensland and Western Australia, and New South Wales, Australia's most populous state.