CANBERRA, Australia — Australians headed to the polls on Saturday in an election that pits a ruling party marred by infighting and a much-maligned carbon tax against a conservative opposition led by a man who has never been particularly popular and has long been polarizing.
Despite the lack of overwhelming enthusiasm for opposition leader Tony Abbott, he seemed on track to guide his Liberal Party-led coalition to a victory, with opinion polls giving the party a commanding lead over the ruling Labor Party.
Polling booths opened at 8 a.m. Saturday in eastern Australia and were set to close 10 hours later, with western states voting another two hours beyond that due to time zones.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was once widely beloved by the public, becoming the nation's most popular leader in three decades when he took on the top job in 2007. Now, his party is facing the prospect of an end to its six years in power — and a long stretch of conservative rule — amid deep voter frustration over years of party instability and bickering, and widespread hatred of a carbon tax on major polluters.
The carbon tax has long been a thorn in the side of the Labor Party. The previous Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, broke an election promise and agreed to impose the tax in a bid to form a coalition Labor needed to stay in power. Labor required the support of the minor Greens party — which insisted on the tax — in order to have enough seats in Parliament to control government.
The deal helped lead to her downfall, and in June, Gillard lost her job to Rudd in a vote of party lawmakers. Gillard herself came to power by unseating Rudd in a similar party coup three years earlier.
The Gillard vs. Rudd drama and the bickering between their camps left many voters disillusioned and worried about the party's stability. To some former Labor supporters, Abbott — once dubbed "unelectable" by a former boss — was seen as the lesser of two evils.
Abbott has vowed to scrap the carbon tax and instead introduce taxpayer-funded incentives for polluters to operate cleaner.
Abbott has long struggled to connect with women voters, with Gillard once famously calling him a misogynist and sexist in a fiery speech before Parliament. In a bid to improve his image, he introduced a paid maternity leave plan that would give mothers the taxpayer-funded equivalent of their salaries for six months. Yet the plan has proven divisive even within the Liberal Party, with some of Abbott's own allies dubbing it unaffordable.
Abbott and Rudd have also clashed over a tax on coal and iron ore mining companies. Abbott has promised to repeal the tax, which he blames in part for a downturn in the mining boom that kept Australia out of recession during the global economic crisis.
The 30 percent mining tax on the profits of iron ore and coal miners was designed to cash in on burgeoning profits from a mineral boom fueled by Chinese industrial demand. But the boom was cooling before the tax took effect. The tax was initially forecast to earn the government 3 billion Australian dollars ($2.7 billion) in its first year, but collected only AU$126 million after six months.
Labor, meanwhile, is hoping to win votes from its AU$37.4 billion high-speed fiber-optic national broadband network, or NBN, which is being rolled out across the country. Labor bills it as the largest infrastructure project in Australian history.
The opposition promises a cheaper, slower broadband alternative that will cost AU$29 billion and use Australia's existing, aging copper telecommunications network. The opposition's version would deliver only 10 percent of the download speeds of the NBN. But Abbott argues that the true cost of NBN would be more than double Labor's forecast.
The government and opposition also differ on how to curb a growing number of asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat.
Labor has promised that every bona fide refugee who attempts to reach Australia by boat from the policy announcement date of July 19 will be settled on the impoverished South Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea or Nauru.
Labor claimed this week that the policy was already working. Only 1,585 asylum seekers arrived by boat during the month of August, less than half of the 4,236 who arrived in the previous month.
The Liberals have promised new policies requiring the navy to turn asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia, where they launch, and the government to buy back aging fishing boats from Indonesian villagers to prevent them falling into the hands of people smugglers.
Labor has dismissed the boat-buying policy as "crazy." The policy would be a boon to Indonesian boat builders, without denting the number of vessels available to people smugglers among the estimated 750,000 fishing boats in Indonesia.
The Liberals would also introduce a new tax on big business to pay for the new maternity leave entitlement. Mothers would be paid their usual salary up to AU$75,000 for six months while away on maternity leave. Mothers are currently entitled to the minimum wage of AU$622.10 a week for 18 weeks for maternity leave.