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Aussie PM running away with campaign Add to ...

When Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd's approval ratings plunged close to single digits in May, the question was inevitably put to his deputy: Are you interested in his job?

Nonsense, insisted Julia Gillard at the time. "I'm focused on my job as deputy prime minister. There's more chance of me becoming the full-forward for the Dogs than there is any chance of a change in the Labour party," she said, referring to Melbourne's Aussie rules football team. Six weeks later, in a stunning 12-hour political coup, Mr. Rudd had resigned, handing over the reins of leadership to the 48-year-old Ms. Gillard.

Now, the first woman PM in Australian history seems poised to win a second consecutive term for her Labour party.

According to recent polls, her party's running four percentage points ahead of the Liberal-led Opposition coalition, and enjoys a more robust 21-point advantage over Liberal party leader Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister. At dissolution of Parliament, Labour held a slim seven-seat majority.

If re-elected on Aug. 21, Ms. Gillard may owe it not only to the backroom labour union operatives who helped orchestrate Mr. Rudd's sudden demise, but to a canny reading to the country's political winds.

Julia Eileen Gillard is the younger of two daughters born in Wales to parents who both worked professionally as nurses and immigrated to Adelaide in 1966. She gravitated early on to student politics - she cites former Welsh Labour MP Nye Bevan as one of her political heroes - and became president of the Australian Union of Students. She went on to make partner at her law firm by age 29. She won her first election in 1998, and in 2006, she was named Mr. Rudd's deputy leader of the Opposition. With his 2007 election win, she became deputy prime minister and served as minister for education, employment and workplace relations.

Never married and childless, Mr. Gillard's current partner is Tim Mathieson, whom she met in 2004 at the Melbourne hairdressing salon where he worked. According to Ms. Gillard's biographer, Jacqueline Kent, the Prime Minister told her mother, Moira, at age 16 that she never wanted to have children.

While the Welsh-born former industrial-relations lawyer spent her early years on the party's left wing, her positions on the critical issues now facing Australians - immigration, climate change, taxing big business - illustrate a vote-winning pragmatism.

Certainly, she has distanced herself from positions that precipitated the once-popular Mr. Rudd's astonishing fall from favour.

Mr. Rudd had campaigned for a carbon-emissions trading scheme to combat global warming, calling it "the greatest moral challenge of our time." But his proposals were three times spurned in the Senate, forcing him to shelve the ambitious plan. The climbdown was seen as a significant catalyst of his political collapse.

Ms. Gillard has carefully echoed Mr. Rudd's green-tinted rhetoric, but suggested that Australia must first build a broader national consensus on the issues. And she has rowed back no less strategically on a controversial mining tax.

One issue that clearly divides the two parties is immigration. In the first leaders' debate, scheduled for Sunday, Tony Abbott is expected to call for a sharp reduction in Australia's immigration levels, now running at more than 150,000 annually. Where Mr. Rudd championed the notion of a "Big Australia," open to all comers, Ms. Gillard has again nuanced the policy, now promoting what she calls "a sustainable Australia - an Australia that preserves our quality of life and respects our environment."

It's a statement that acknowledges voter concern about unbridled population growth and its impact on jobs, congestion, the infrastructure and the environment. On the parallel issue of illegal refugees arriving via East Timor - 81 boatloads since January, all seeking political asylum - Ms. Gillard has already launched negotiations with Indonesia, aimed to deterring the human cargo.

On other sensitive issues, Ms. Gillard, an avowed atheist, has declared herself pro-choice on abortion, but opposed to legalization of gay marriage. She has said she will continue to support the NATO-led coalition war in Afghanistan as being in Australia's security interests and was supportive of Israel's 2009 incursion into Gaza.

 

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