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(Updates with minister’s comments in ninth paragraph.)
Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) -- Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the nation’s first female leader, starts 2012 with support for her government at the lowest level on record at the start of a parliamentary year, a poll today showed.
The ruling Labor party’s primary vote fell one percentage point to 30 percent, behind the Liberal-National coalition’s 45 percent, according to the first Newspoll survey of the year published in the Australian newspaper. Gillard’s lead as preferred prime minister fell 3 points to 40 percent, compared with opposition leader Tony Abbott’s 37 percent.
The poll caps a challenging start to 2012 for Gillard, who after parliament opens Feb. 7 plans to implement a price on carbon emissions and pass laws to create a new tax on miners ahead of national elections due in 2013. An independent lawmaker’s decision to withdraw support for the government and opposition demands for an inquiry into Labor’s role in clashes between police and aboriginal protesters last week may have robbed her of any momentum won late last year, Newspoll’s Martin O’Shannessy said.
“Labor is very good at fighting from behind in the underdog position,” O’Shannessy, Newspoll’s chief executive, said in a phone interview today. “Gillard’s challenge is to get Labor’s primary vote up to 35 percent, which is contestable” to win an election, he said.
Gillard’s parliamentary majority was reduced to one seat last week when Andrew Wilkie withdrew his support. Wilkie, who helped Labor form a minority government in 2010, said Gillard’s decision to implement a trial period on technology that restricts gambling on slot machines fell short of a pledge to make the limits mandatory.
Gillard formed a government in September 2010, three months after replacing Kevin Rudd as leader in a late-night party coup, after the nation’s closest election in seven decades. The vote ended Labor’s majority. She had to rely on the support of Wilkie, two other independents and a Greens Party lawmaker to secure the votes needed to pass legislation in the 150-member House of Representatives.
The opposition is demanding an inquiry after Gillard’s media aide resigned Jan. 27 for disclosing Abbott’s location at a restaurant in the national capital of Canberra, information that was passed on to protest organizers. Security officers rushed Gillard and Abbott from the venue, where they were attending a function, as dozens of demonstrators banged on the windows.
The government is also encountering opposition to its plan for a 30 percent tax on iron ore and coal profits, forecast to raise A$7.7 billion ($8.2 billion) in the first two years should it be approved by parliament’s upper house. Gillard’s approval rating in December rose to the highest in seven months after the lower house passed the tax plan and she signed a defense accord with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Gillard has faced speculation since September that Rudd would challenge her leadership. The former prime minister won’t vie for the top job, Minister for Regional Australia Simon Crean said today.
“There is no point in having a band of prima donnas unless they operate as a team,” Crean said in an interview on the 3AW radio station. “Part of the reason he lost the leadership was because he wasn’t” prepared to operate as part of a team, he said, referring to Rudd.
Gillard’s struggle to boost her government’s popularity comes even as the nation shrugs off the effects of the global economic downturn, spurred by a resources boom that’s pushing exports to records. Australia’s economy will expand 3.7 percent in 2012, the fastest pace among Group of 10 currencies, according to analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.
“The coalition’s primary vote shows it’s in a pretty strong position and the battle is with the prime minister,” said Newspoll’s O’Shannessy. “I don’t think Gillard will face a challenge from her party -- there would be a big breach of faith with the electorate were that to happen.”
The Newspoll survey of 1,139 people was conducted Jan. 28-29 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
--Editors: John Brinsley, Peter Hirschberg
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