Australian PM on the attack

2010-08-03 14:02

Sydney – Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard went on the offensive on Tuesday, putting the economy at the fore of her re-election bid and accusing rival Tony Abbott of cowardice for refusing to debate her.

Gillard, the country's first female leader, said the August 21 poll would be fought on economic issues, and claimed the conservative Abbott was afraid to debate the issue because it was "not his strong suit".

The former industrial lawyer originally agreed to just one televised leaders' debate during the election campaign, but on Monday night agreed to a second debate on the economy in a bid to stem her flagging popularity.

Critics seized on the move as cynical, saying Gillard had agreed to spar with Abbott on Sunday night knowing it was the same night as his party's campaign launch and he would have to refuse.

But Gillard said she was prepared to make herself available on any night, at any time, to debate Tony Abbott on the economy, promising it would be a "fast and free flowing" battle.

"I know Mr Abbott is bored by economics... but you can't be prime minister of this country without having an economic plan," Gillard said.

Happy to debate

"I'm happy to debate it with Mr Abbott anywhere, any time."

Abbott said he had booked out his schedule with campaign events after Gillard refused more than one debate, and accused her of "chang(ing) the rules just because you're in trouble".

"Unlike the prime minister, I don't have to re-invent my campaign halfway through," he added.

A feisty Gillard said she was coming good on her promise to tear up the rule book of traditional campaigning, turning personal with an attack on her rival as someone who struggled with the basics of "economics 101".

Gillard sought to shift the campaign to economic management – seen as a strong point for the ruling centre-left Labour party – after a damaging week of high-level party room leaks which sent her popularity into freefall.

She seized the leadership from elected prime minister Kevin Rudd in a June coup after a series of policy mis-steps on climate change and the powerful mining industry shattered Labour's polling with voters.

Australia was the only advanced economy to avoid a recession during the global slump and Labour has credited its $50bn stimulus package with driving growth – a measure opposed by Abbott's party.