SYDNEY: Australian leader Julia Gillard appeared to be regaining momentum in the election race yesterday, with resurgent former prime minister Kevin Rudd dominating headlines and her economic policy getting high-level praise.
The spectre of Rudd has stymied Gillard’s campaign, with her ruthless axing of him — just three weeks before the election was called — overshadowing her efforts to tout the ruling Labour party’s credentials, and angering voters.
But his announcement that he would join her to tour key parts of his home state of Queensland and was committed to her return to office stole front pages across the nation yesterday, with pundits claiming it could be a turning point.
“There is no doubt his explosion onto the scene will change the dynamics of the campaign,” wrote the Sydney Morning Herald’s Phillip Coorey.
“(Conservative rival Tony) Abbott now faces two opponents, Gillard and Rudd, who, despite his many flaws, is brilliant at campaigning and staying on message.” Opinion polls put the August 21 election on a knife-edge, with the once popular Gillard bleeding vital support in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia, where a handful of marginal seats will ultimately decide the vote.
Australia’s first female leader received a timely boost yesterday with the release of a report into Labor’s massive school-building stimulus program, Gillard’s pet project during her time as Education Minister, which has been plagued by allegations of waste and fraud.
Officials found bloating in building costs of up to 12 per cent, but said there were complaints in just 2.7 per cent of schools.
They added that the US$14 billion program, rolled out at the height of the global financial crisis, had created jobs and achieved its aim.
“I made a judgement about saving the country from recession by investing in schools,” Gillard said after the report’s release.
“I stand by that judgement and I would make it again today.” Gillard’s bid to put the economy at the centre of her campaign got a leg-up from Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who said her party “did a fantastic job of saving your country from problems”.
“You would have had high unemployment, you would have had capital assets not fully utilised, that’s waste,” Stiglitz told a conference in Sydney.
“So your choice was one form of waste versus another form of waste.
“It’s judgment of what is the way to minimise waste, no perfection here, and what your government did was exactly right.” By contrast, Stiglitz said Abbott had “praised the architects of the global financial crisis” and could lead Australia into difficulty.
Former Reserve Bank governor Bernie Fraser took the attack further, accusing Abbott of “brazen scaremongering” on government debt and rubbishing his vote against Labor’s US$50 billion stimulus package as an “indelible blight” on his economic credentials.
Political analyst John Warhurst said it was difficult to tell whether Gillard’s campaign had turned a corner, but he thought there was some truth in the speculation.
“I think there are a number of factors behind this,” said Warhurst, from the Australian National University. — AFP