Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has gone head-to-head with challenger Tony Abbott on immigration and the economy in a muted first debate of the country’s election campaign.
Rudd, who retook the Australian Labor Party leadership in late June, has repeatedly said he is the underdog in the September 7 national poll against Abbott, the conservative opposition leader.
The latest Galaxy poll, published in Australia’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper, showed that while it remained a tight race, Labor’s primary vote fell from 40 to 38 percent while Abbott’s Liberal/National coalition rose from 44 to 45 percent.
If you're a people smuggler bringing someone to Australia and you're seeking to settle them in Australia, we will not allow them to settle here. They'll be sent for processing in Papua New Guinea
In a two-party race between Labor and the conservative coalition, the government was trailing 49 percent to 51 percent, according to the poll of 1,002 voters taken at the end of last week.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, reporting from Christmas Island where there is a detention centre for migrants, said that immigration was a hot-button issue after Abbott accused Rudd of not protecting the country’s borders.
“What I’ve put forward is a new policy for the future with one simple principle attached,” Rudd said during the debate at the National Press Club in capital Canberra.
“If you’re a people smuggler bringing someone to Australia and you’re seeking to settle them in Australia, we will not allow them to settle here. They’ll be sent for processing in Papua New Guinea.”
Abbott hit back that Rudd’s government had dismantled already successful border protection policies put in place by a previous Liberal/National coalition government.
“And it’s because Mr Rudd closed it all down that we’ve had more than 50,000 illegal arrivals, more than 800 boats, 11 billion dollars in budget blow-outs,” Abbott said.
Gay marriage pledge
Peter Hartcher, political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, told Al Jazeera that there were only slight differences between the immigration policies of the two men but, who were both trying to establish the toughest possible deterrents to appeal to Australians frustrated by illegal migrants.
On the economy, Hartcher said that, again, there was little difference between them.
“Both leaders agree on the policy outcome they need, which is that Australia, after the biggest mining boom in its history, needs to diversify its economy more broadly, yet neither leader got us any closer to explaining how they would achieve that,” he said.
Rudd promised during the debate that he would introduce a bill to legalise same-sex marriage within the first 100 days of government, if Labor was re-elected.
“We will allow a full conscience vote, I would appeal to Mr Abbott to do the same,” the prime minister said.
But Abbott said his priority was reducing cost of living pressure.
Analysts said that neither man emerged as a clear winner of the debate and that it was muted because both of them were trying to project a statesman-like manner of calm.