Howard declared clear loser in Australian election debate

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The Independent Online

The Australian opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, was declared the clear victor after a televised election debate last night, turning up the pressure on Prime Minister John Howard ahead of polls on 24 November.

Political analysts and body language experts said Mr Rudd, the Labour leader, gave a better performance in what is expected to be the only head-to-head debate of the six-week campaign.

They praised his responses to questions on interest rates, tax policy, education, climate change and Australia's military involvement in Iraq – even complimenting his choice of a charcoal and pink striped tie.

Mr Howard – in a sober blue tie – lauded the economic achievements of his government, scorning Mr Rudd's claim to be an economic conservative, calling him "an election-eve convert to responsible economic management".

Mr Rudd said: "I've put before the Australian people a long-term plan for the nation's future. I fear Mr Howard's put before them a short-term strategy to win the election."

While Mr Howard stressed his experience, analysts said he had been too negative, concentrating his efforts on attacking Labour. They said Mr Rudd was more convincing and had come across as personable and enthusiastic.

The latest polls show the Liberal-National Party coalition narrowing the gap with Labour. Mr Howard has won at the ballot box twice before after being declared the loser in debates.

During the 90-minute debate, Mr Howard said low-income earners facing higher power bills as a result of the quest for cleaner energy would be given assistance. He also said he would use his close ties with the US and China to press for action on climate change.

Mr Rudd, 50, promised to ratify the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by next year, cancel industrial relations reforms and invest in an "education revolution".

Both men pledged last week to deliver multi-billion dollar tax cuts.

One betting agency, Lasseters Sportsbook, said last night that the odds on a Rudd win had shortened.