Australian opposition launches election campaign

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Opposition leader Tony Abbott, a strong favorite to become Australian prime minister in national elections next month, officially launched his conservative coalition’s campaign Sunday with a speech that offered few clues to how his spending promises would be paid for.

The Liberal Party-led coalition’s launch took place in the east coast city of Brisbane, the capital of Queensland state, a major battleground for the Sept. 7 elections.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd represents a Brisbane electorate and will officially launch his center-left Labor Party’s bid for a third three-year term in power next weekend in the same city.

The election comes as economic conditions worsen in Australia, where tax revenues have retreated with the cooling of a mining boom that kept the resource-rich nation out of recession during the global economic crisis.

Abbott’s coalition has consistently out-performed the ruling party in public opinion polls for more than two years, despite Abbott’s low personal approval rating.

The 55-year-old former Roman Catholic seminarian and Rhodes scholar urged voters to trust his government to return the Australian budget to a surplus after five consecutive deficits delivered by Labor since the global economic crisis.

“The worst deficit is not the budget deficit, it’s the trust deficit,” Abbott said.

He reminded party faithful that Rudd had been elected prime minister in 2007, but was then dumped by his own government colleagues in a leadership showdown less than three years later. Rudd was restored to power in June in a similar internal showdown which prompted a third of cabinet ministers to resign.

“If the people who worked with Mr. Rudd don’t trust him, why should you?” Abbott asked.

“My friends, you don’t expect miracles: just a government that is competent and trustworthy and a prime minister who doesn’t talk down to you,” he said.

Abbott has promised to give priority to repealing taxes introduced last year on mining company profits and on Australia’s worst industrial polluters for their emission of global-warming carbon gases.

But he said he will not cut additional welfare payments to most Australian families to compensate them for higher electricity prices under the so-called carbon tax.

Abbott promised to match Labor’s pledges to increase funding for services to disabled people and for education.

Most controversially, Abbott has promised a generous new taxpayer-funded maternity leave scheme that would match working mothers’ salaries for up six months and for up to 75,000 Australian dollars ($68,000).

Economists, business leaders and some of Abbott’s own political allies have condemned the scheme as unaffordable.

Less than half the AU$5.5 billion a year the scheme is expected to cost would be paid for by a 1.5 percentage point tax increase to be paid by Australia’s 3,000 biggest companies.

Mothers are currently entitled to the equivalent of the minimum wage — AU$622.10 a week — for 18 weeks for maternity leave.

Rudd argued that paying AU$75,000 to “millionaires or billionaires” was “unfair, unfunded and economically irresponsible.”

It would lead to cutbacks in health and education spending as well as in the AU$37.4 billion high-speed fiber-optic national broadband network which is being rolled out across Australia. The opposition has promised a cheaper, slower alternative.

“I still cannot believe that on the question of priorities for Australia’s future, Mr. Abbott has judged that a AU$22 billion paid parental leave scheme is his core priority,” Rudd told reporters, referring to the cost of the scheme over four years.

Abbott, who has struggled to win over women voters, was supported by two of his daughters, Frances, 21 and Bridget, 20, who spoke of his positive influence as a father.

According to leaked diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2009, former U.S. ambassador Robert McCallum reported to Washington that Abbott was a “polarizing right-winger’” with a “propensity for insensitivity and controversy.”

Rudd’s predecessor Julia Gillard, Australia’s first woman prime minister, was applauded by feminists around world for a speech she gave to parliament a year ago in which she branded Abbott a misogynist for a string of allegedly sexist comments.

Sunday’s launch contained relatively modest new funding promises: AU$200 million for dementia research, an extension of drug subsidies for the elderly and new interest-free AU$20,000 loans for trade apprentices similar to those available to university students.

A poll by market researcher Nielsen published in Fairfax Media newspapers on Saturday found the coalition was leading Labor 53 percent to 47 percent.

It was based on a random national telephone survey of 2,545 voters over four days last week. It had a 3 percentage point margin of error.

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