Gillard's election bid undermined by leaks from 'kitchen cabinet'

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The Independent Online

Her ear lobes are pendulous. Her clothes are "drab and unflattering". Her boyfriend is nowhere to be seen. And, as if the media criticism were not bad enough, Julia Gillard has a high-placed enemy within her ranks who is leaking information apparently aimed at disrupting her election campaign.

Barely a month after Ms Gillard deposed Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, then called an election for 21 August, her political honeymoon is over. In opinion polls published this week, her personal approval ratings have plunged to level with those of the Opposition leader Tony Abbott, while her ruling Labor Party is only a few points ahead of Mr Abbott's conservative Coalition.

It was not supposed to be this way: the point of calling an early election was to capitalise on Ms Gillard's surge in the polls after she sunk the knife into Mr Rudd, then announced a series of policy shifts. But each of those announcements – on asylum-seekers, climate change, and an unpopular mining-industry tax – has been undermined by circumstance or ineptitude.

Yesterday, Ms Gillard – a Welsh-born redhead who is the country's first female prime minister – was forced to confront claims that, under Mr Rudd's leadership, she opposed two key Labor policies: a paid parental-leave scheme and an increase in old-age pensions. On the latter, it was alleged, she had argued in cabinet that "old people don't vote for Labor".

One of the most damaging repercussions of the leak is the fevered debate about its source. Under Mr Rudd, high-level discussions were confined to a "kitchen cabinet" with Ms Gillard, his then deputy, the Treasurer Wayne Swan – who is now Ms Gillard's deputy – and the Finance Minister Lyndsay Tanner, who is retiring from politics. While some Labor figures are privately pointing the finger at Mr Rudd, who is campaigning to retain his Queensland seat, he has maintained a dignified silence.

But the row has been a gift to Mr Abbott, who yesterday accused Ms Gillard's government of lurching "from incompetence to incompetence, chaos to chaos, shambles to shambles". Mr Abbott is a social conservative opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. He has had a new bounce in his step since out-performing Ms Gillard in a televised leaders' debate on Sunday. This week, he has been campaigning with his wife, Margie, and eldest daughter, Louise, thereby demonstrating his family credentials.

Ms Gillard's partner, Tim Mathieson, has, however, been notably absent from the election trail. Although Ms Gillard is still believed to exert more appeal over female voters, she is having to endure near daily media commentary about her personal life, her fashion sense and even her anatomy. The size of her ear lobes became a talking point after an article in The Australian newspaper, which quoted one contributor to an online discussion as saying: "Heck, there must be a surgeon who can help."

On the sidelines, two of Australia's smallest parties were embroiled in a row over back-room deals. Family First, which espouses family values, was forced to admit one of its staff had approached the Australian Sex Party – dedicated to "keeping politicians out of your bedroom" – to discuss a potential deal. The previous day, the party had flatly denied an approach. The Sex Party's convenor, Fiona Patten, said it had been impossible to "find any sort of common ground".