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Australia PM leads polls as 'filthy' campaign starts

world Updated: Jul 18, 2010 10:54 IST

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard got off to a flying start in opinion polls on Sunday as taunts over her new slogan and controversial rise to power marked the start of a "filthy" election season.

Gillard, who set August 21 polls just three weeks after deposing Kevin Rudd, kicked off her campaign in the key battleground state of Queensland, pledging to safeguard Australia's treasured quality of life.

"One of the things Australians often say when we've spent a few days in a crowded, congested city in Europe or the United States: 'it's a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there'," she said in a speech in Brisbane.

"Friends, I will not allow Australia to ever become a country of which it is said: 'it's a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there'."

Campaigning started inauspiciously when an opposition Liberal candidate was physically attacked over her party's immigration policies while handing out flyers at a supermarket.

"My poor volunteer, who was on his first day of the campaign trail, got punched in the face many times," Jassmine Wood, a candidate for the South Australian seat of Hindmarsh, told public broadcaster ABC.

"I got hit in the side of the head."

A Galaxy opinion poll taken late on Friday gave Labor a 52-48 percent lead over the Liberal/National Coalition with Gillard, Australia's first woman prime minister, enjoying a 58-32 percent advantage over Coalition chief Tony Abbott.

However, some 57 percent of voters also said last month's sudden ousting of Rudd, who was dumped in a surprise party revolt, would hurt the government's chances.

Opposition leader Abbott, who predicted a "filthy" campaign, said it was no surprise Gillard's slogan was "Moving Australia Forward", which she referenced 18 times in her election announcement alone.

"'Moving Australia Forward' is utterly content-free," Abbott said.

"And the reason why she's desperate to talk about the future is because Julia Gillard's recent past is littered with failures, including the political corpse of an elected prime minister."

Voting in the first winter polls since 1987 looks set to hinge on the touchstone issues of people-smuggling, the economy and global warming, echoing the themes of the last election in 2007.

The centre-left Gillard will aim to portray the coalition as harking back to the 11-year rule of John Howard, while the right-leaning Coalition will try to show the prime minister as someone who cannot be trusted.

Gillard Sunday pledged 200 million dollars (174 million US) for affordable homes in regional cities, after rocketing prices put houses out of range for many Australians and saddled others with large mortgages.

"(The election) will be a referendum on our very quality of life. This is a time for choosing, between cuts or services, fear and optimism, going backwards or going forwards," she said.

Abbott meanwhile attacked Gillard's three weeks in office as "shambolic", referring to confusion over her plan to process asylum-seekers in East Timor, and compared Rudd's downfall to Labor's notoriously brutal state politics.

"This is all part of the Labor political style: when things get really, really bad you change the leader and pretend everything is different," he told Sky News. "But it's never different, it's always just as bad."

Both leaders are untested in running election campaigns and are long-time sparring partners, adding spice to a vote which Labor never looked like losing until Rudd's enduring popularity collapsed in recent months.

Gillard is a straight-talking, Welsh-born lawyer who came to Australia as a "Ten Pound Pom" in the 1960s, while fitness fanatic Abbott is an ex-Rhodes Scholar nicknamed the "Mad Monk" after once training as a priest.

Gillard was deputy to Rudd, a Queenslander who ended conservative leader Howard's long-standing government by a landslide three years ago.

The Coalition needs a 2.3 percent swing to make Labor the first single-term government since World War II, with key marginal seats in the populous eastern states of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.