Conservative challenger Tony Abbott headed for a sweeping victory over Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Saturday as polls closed after millions of Australians voted in national elections.
Polling booths in the mandatory ballot shut in the huge country’s most populous east coast states, where the election is expected to be won or lost, at 6:00 p.m. with those in the west closing two hours later.
Several senior Labor ministers have already conceded they are beaten with Defence Minister Stephen Smith admitting on ABC television that “the government will be defeated tonight”.
Early exit polls taken before voting ended pointed to a landslide for Abbott’s Liberal/National and gains of a massive 25 seats to take 97 of the 150 seats in the lower House of Representatives.
The survey, carried out by Newspoll, forecast Labor would lose 21 to be left with just 51. The independents would have two seats.
On a two-party basis, Abbott’s coalition would take 53 percent of the vote to Labor’s 47 percent.
Former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, who won four successive elections in the 1980s and 90s, said personality politics had been allowed to overtake the party’s message and policies.
“The personal manipulations and pursuits of interest have dominated more than they should and in the process the concentration on values has slipped,” he told Sky.
“I really believe this was an election that was lost by the government rather than one that was won by the opposition.”
A separate Morgan-Channel Ten exit poll showed that in the primary vote, which takes into account the minor parties and independents, the conservatives had 42.5 percent to Labor’s 33.5 percent.
The Greens Party would garner 11 percent and the newly-established Palmer United Party, run by colorful billionaire Clive Palmer, five percent, with “others” taking the rest.
Rudd struggled for traction after toppling Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, in a bitter party room coup just weeks before calling the election.
With defeat looming, Rudd may not be around to lead Labor in opposition with the Sky poll showing he could be toppled in his Queensland seat of Griffith by Liberal/National Bill Glasson.
“It’s 50-50,” Newspoll chief Martin O’Shannessey said, reporting a seven percentage point swing away from Rudd.
The prime minister nevertheless remained upbeat ahead of casting his ballot in a Brisbane church where he was met by a group of noisy refugee advocates who yelled at him about Labor’s mandatory detention of asylum-seekers who arrive by boat.
“I believe we have put our best foot forward. I’m very confident in people’s judgement because they will assess what is best for our country’s future, their community’s future and their family’s future,” he said
Asked if he would step down if he lost, Rudd said: “This is politics. You take things one step at a time.”
A relaxed Abbott, 55, running as opposition leader in his second election, said he was ready to assume the leadership.
“Inevitably, all candidates are nervous but I am confident I am ready and my team is ready,” he told reporters at Freshwater surf club in Sydney, where he voted with wife Margie and three adult daughters.
Abbott has made a paid parental leave scheme his “signature” policy, while pledging to scrap the carbon tax and make billions of dollars of savings to bring debt down.
Rudd, also 55, campaigned on his administration’s success in keeping Australia out of a recession during the global financial crisis.
He also promised to scrap the carbon tax brought in by Labor after the 2010 election and move to a carbon emissions trading scheme by July 2014.
Other key policies include a plan to introduce a bill in parliament to legalise gay marriage and the adoption of tough measures to halt asylum-seeker boats.
Despite the logistical difficulties in such a large country, Australians overwhelmingly abide by their obligation to vote, turnout never falling below 90 percent since it became compulsory in 1924. AFP