Australian PM calls election
Canberra - Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard called an election on Saturday for August 21, with the tightly-fought poll to be decided over policies on economic management, climate and border protection.
Australia's first female prime minister was appointed three weeks ago by the ruling Labour party as the government faced electoral defeat. Since then Gillard has resurrected support, putting Labour narrowly ahead in opinion polls.
But conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott needs to win only nine seats to form a government with four independents, or 13 seats to take office outright.
"Today I seek a mandate from the Australian people to move Australia forward," Gillard told a news conference.
"Moving forward means moving forward with budget surpluses and a stronger economy," said Gillard, who toppled leader Kevin Rudd in a party coup on June 24.
"I do genuinely believe this is a close election, a very close election, and it will be a very hard-fought campaign."
Financial markets are not expected to react much to the election given there is little to choose on core economic policy.
"The main concern for financial markets is an inconclusive election result like a hung parliament," said Craig James, chief economist at CommSec.
Gillard said her re-election platform would focus on creating jobs, boosting education, improving health care, fighting climate change and strengthening border protection.
Australia's robust economy will be key to the 2010 election.
Despite Labour steering the economy through the global financial crisis and avoiding recession last year, opinion polls show voters view the opposition as better economic managers.
Both the government and opposition have vowed to return to a budget surplus.
Yet, voters will be given stark choices:
* Gillard plans to introduce a 30% mining tax, raising A$10.5 billion from 2012. Abbott has vowed to dump it.
* Gillard believes a carbon price to fight climate change is inevitable, with an emissions trading scheme possibly brought in after 2012-13. Abbott does not.
* Gillard has proposed a possible East Timor regional asylum processing centre to stop boatpeople arriving in Australia. Abbott plans to reopen Pacific island detention camps.
"Under Labour we will be moving forward to more debt, more taxes, more spending and more boats - that's why Labour needs to move out for our country to move on," Abbott told a news conference in Brisbane.
Abbott also saw jobs as a focus for the election, saying conservative parties would abandon a policy of tough labour laws, conceding it lost them power in 2007.
Labour has lost Green voter support in the past year over its failure to introduce a carbon trading scheme to tackle climate change, and needs to woo them back to hold government.
Gillard said she would announce a new climate policy during the campaign, describing Abbott as a climate change denier for his comments that climate change was "crap" (rubbish).
"They will be policies coming from a person who believes climate change is real, who believes it's caused by human activity and who has never equivocated in that belief," she said.
Abbott countered saying: "The coalition will respect the environment because we only have one planet to live on, but you don't help the planet by damaging the economy."
Australia is one of the world's top per-capita emitters of planet-warming carbon pollution.
The government and opposition have pledged to cut carbon emissions by 5% by 2020, but business has warned a lack of a clear climate policy is hindering power sector investment.
The small Greens party is set to control the upper house Senate and will push the next government to introduce a carbon price in return for support on other legislation.
Voters will have to choose between two contrasting personalities in Abbott and Gillard.
Abbott is a pugnacious and socially conservative Catholic, who once trained for the priesthood, and is opposed to same sex marriages and abortions.
Gillard in contrast does not believe in God, is unmarried but has a long-time partner, and is childless.
David Briggs of pollster Galaxy Research said the focus of the election will be leadership, in particular the performance of Gillard. "It is about Julia Gillard and it is the election for Labour to lose," he said.