From: Paul Tait, Reuters
Published September 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Australia's Labor Leads, but Greens' Influence Grows

CANBERRA, Australia — Minor Australian parties like the increasingly popular Greens shaped up as major players in an Oct. 9 election as an opinion poll this week showed opposition Labor had edged ahead of the conservative government.

A Newspoll survey, published in the Australian newspaper, showed center-left Labor leading by four points on a two-party preferred basis with 52 percent.

Under Australia's complicated preferential voting system, minor party votes are distributed to major parties and ultimately decide an election.

"Clearly what we're seeing here is that there's a strong vote for left-of-center parties," said Nick Economou, political analyst at Monash University.

"Voters ... are quite happy to entertain the idea of voting for independents or, more importantly, a third party, and the third party that seems to be getting the most attention is the Greens," he said.


Underlining how close the election race is, the Newspoll showed that the eight-year-old government, seeking a fourth straight term in office, holds a three-point lead on a primary vote basis, or first count of votes. On that basis, the government has 43 percent support, almost identical to what it achieved when it was re-elected in 2001.

"I think it will be a very close election," Prime Minister John Howard told Australian radio.

The Newspoll, which surveyed 1,701 voters by telephone between Sept. 24-26, showed Howard comfortably remains the preferred prime minister over Labor leader Mark Latham. The poll was taken before Howard's Liberal/National coalition announced A$6 billion (US$4.3 billion) in new spending pledges and tax relief at its official campaign launch on Sunday.

Another poll released on Saturday showed the coalition surging ahead of Labor.

Across the Line

Analysts said this week's Newspoll illustrated the role minor parties such as the left-leaning Greens could play in the election with the distribution of their preference votes.

"With the strong flow of preferences from Greens and the minor parties and independents at the moment, on a uniform basis that possibly could be enough to get Labor across the line," Newspoll Managing Director Sol Lebovic told Australian radio.

Candidates in each electorate rarely win an outright majority, and voters must number candidates in order of preference on ballot papers. In a system that usually favors major parties, preferences are then distributed until a winner is declared.

Economou said the flow of Greens' preferences to Labor could be expected to be as high as 75 percent. "Obviously preferences are going to be important here," he said.

The Newspoll showed that the Greens, who have one seat in the lower House of Representatives and two in the upper house Senate, had about 7 percent support on a primary vote basis, by far the most of any of the minor parties.

Reflecting the growing influence of the Greens, the government and Labor have vowed to protect virgin forests in the island state of Tasmania, a key Greens platform, while at the same time promising to protect the jobs of timber workers.

The Australian economy, one of the world's strongest, is still the biggest issue of the campaign, but the environment and the influence of the Greens have joined the U.S.-led Iraq war and national security as other important issues.

The government has been trying to scare voters off Labor by warning that interest rates, now at 5.25 percent, could soar under the center-left party.

Both Howard and Latham have pledged to keep interest rates low and to keep Australia's budget in surplus. Economists expect rates to rise regardless of who wins the election.

Howard's coalition holds 82 seats in the 150-seat parliament and would be out of office if it lost seven seats and the support of independents. Labor, which will officially launch its campaign in Brisbane on Wednesday, needs to win 12 seats to claim power.

Source: Reuters

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