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Australia's 1st woman prime minister leads her party to low point at knife-edge election

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Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks at a press conference in Canberra, Australia, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010.AP

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Whether or not she emerges as winner following recent elections, Australia's first woman prime minister will have led the nation's oldest political party to one of the lowest points in its 119-year history.

Julia Gillard, a sharp-witted and plain-speaking former lawyer, had been widely expected to take her center-left Labor Party to victory with a loss of some seats at Aug. 21 elections. History was on her side since no Australian government had been denied a second three-year term since 1931.

But she failed to convince sufficient voters that her government deserved a second chance. She now needs to persuade at least two of three independent lawmakers next week to support Labor in a minority government commanding 76 or 77 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott, whose Liberal Party represents the conservative spectrum in Australian politics, needs the support of all three independents to achieve a majority in parliament's lower chamber where parties form government.

The question of how Labor came to land on this knife-edge only months after the party held a seemingly unassailable lead in opinion polls for almost four years has divided analysts, as well as angry government lawmakers.

Nick Economou, a Monash University political scientist, said Friday the similarities between the single-term Labor government that fell in 1931 and Gillard's extend beyond a shared background of global recession.

Economou says both administrations' fatal flaw was internal division. In 1931, the party was fractured over economic policy in response to the Great Depression.

This time the chasm was created with a sudden decision by party power-brokers to replace Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with Gillard, his deputy, in an internal party mutiny in June.

"To take out your leader quite the way they did, that's really taking a very high political risk and I reckon it was going to be a struggle for whoever led Labor in those circumstances to contain the damage," said Economou.

Anger at Rudd's demise became apparent during the election campaign when apparently well-placed, unnamed government sources leaked to the media that Gillard had failed as prime minister to attend top-level national security meetings.

As a minister in Rudd's Cabinet, the leakers also accused her of callously arguing against increasing pensions because old people were more likely to vote for a conservative party rather than Labor. The retribution continued at the ballot box with Labor suffering its worst losses in Rudd's home state of Queensland.

Norman Abjorensen, an Australian National University political scientist, said Gillard suffered for failing to fully explain to the public why Rudd, the elected prime minister, had been replaced.

Climate change — a major election issue with the Australian public — also appears to have played a role in Labor's poor showing.

Rudd declared climate change was "the greatest moral challenge of our time" when Labor swept to power at elections in 2007, and he ratified the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions as his first act as prime minister. His government drew up plans to make major Australian industrial polluters pay for the carbon gas they emit.

However, Rudd's popularity plummeted in opinion polls in April after he shelved his emission permit trading scheme until 2013.

"He talked about 'the greatest moral challenge' and then he walked away from it. That left a huge credibility gap," Abjorensen said.

Australians last experienced a minority federal government in 1943. Since then, parties have governed with strictly disciplined majorities, in which lawmakers rarely vote against party lines, and are never forgiven when they do.

The three independent king-makers — Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor __ said Friday they may announce which party they would support as early as Monday. Australians would return to the polls if no leader can muster a majority.

Economou said while Labor had suffered one of its worst election disasters since it was founded in 1891, Gillard could yet salvage her reputation.

"If she can manage to wrangle a minority government arrangement out of this mess, then she will be considered a minor genius," Economou said.