CANBERRA, Australia – Australians headed to the polls on Saturday in an election that is expected to see the Labor Party ousted from government after six years in power.
Despite the lack of overwhelming enthusiasm for opposition leader Tony Abbott, he seems on track to guide his Liberal Party-led coalition to a victory over a ruling party marred by infighting and a much-maligned carbon tax, with opinion polls giving the coalition a commanding lead.
A poll by Sydney-based market researcher Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper on Saturday showed the coalition was leading Labor 54 percent to 46 percent.
It was based on a random national telephone survey of 2,511 voters over three days this week and had a 2 percentage point margin of error. Newspoll has correctly picked the result of all 56 Australian federal and state elections since 1985.
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 amid 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 squabbling between their camps left many voters disillusioned. 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.
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.
Abbott cast his vote Saturday morning at Sydney's Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club.
Abbott, a volunteer lifeguard, is often depicted by cartoonists wearing nothing but the red-and-yellow cap of an Australian lifeguard and Speedos. Men's swim briefs are known in Australia as "budgie smugglers" -- a reference to the budgerigar, a small Australian parrot.
"I'm down here at Freshie Surf Club and you'll be pleased to see ... I'm in a suit, not in the budgie smugglers," Abbott told Nine Network television. "I sort of wish I was out there on the waves ... but Australia has a democratic duty to do today."
Abbott has long struggled to connect with women voters, with Gillard once 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 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.