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Australia: who's who in the election

In Australia's election, a "ranga-in chief" fends off a "mad monk"

Australia Elections
Five-year-old Findlay Gledhill holds a banner as a group of redheads hits the streets of Melbourne to protest the lack of strong policies to reduce greenhouse pollution so far in the federal election campaign, on Aug. 4, 2010. (William West/Getty Images)

SYDNEY, Australia — Australians heading to the polls on Saturday to elect a new prime minister face a startling choice: between an out-and-proud "ranga" and the "mad monk."

In other words, the result will either confirm Labor leader Julia Gillard, a redhead, as the country's first female elected head of state, or sweep conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott, a former wannabe priest, into office.

Gillard, who assumed the prime ministership after an internal Labor Party coup in June that unseated the elected leader, Kevin Rudd, has inspired the phrase "ranga in chief." Ranga is a colloquial term — whether of endearment or an insult, depending on who's using it and how — most likely derived from the word "orangutan."

If Gillard, 48, is offended by the term, she hasn't shown it in the short time since assuming office. If elected, Gillard would also become the first unmarried prime minister to live in prime ministerial residence, the Lodge, and a rare atheist leader.

Or the election could return Australia to the conservative rule of Abbott's Liberal Party which, until the last election in 2007, had dominated the Australian political landscape for more than a decade. Abbott — who boxed at Oxford University and has cultivated a macho, and increasingly zany, public image — once trained to become a Catholic priest and maintains strong religious ties.

With the five-week campaign almost over, enough babies have been kissed and promises of cash splashed to weary even the most hardened political observer.

Some political commentators have called this campaign boring and a "race to the bottom," but there have been some startling moments.

Here are some highlights:

The real Julia

About half way through the campaign, Gillard announced that we had not been seeing the "real Julia" — instead we had been seeing some highly controlled politician sprouting slogans fed to her by party HQ (the most loathed and repeated slogan being “moving forward”).

From now on she was going to change the rules of her campaign — play it a bit more loosely, allow for more spontaneity, chaos even.

Initially this announcement about the "real Julia" was ridiculed — Abbott leapt on it with the post-modern query saying how did we know that this is the real, real Julia.

But the move away from more tightly controlled campaigning seems to have worked for Labor.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard with a baby and mother. (Getty Images)

A week before the election, Labor had taken the lead in some polls, although the margin was narrow.

Gillard showed Australians a more human side when she appeared on the popular TV shows The 7pm Project and Q&A and took spontaneous questions from the audience including those on personal subjects such as her childless, unmarried status and her atheism.

But there is an issue still sticking in her craw, a shadow hanging over the campaign, a problem that has refused to go away.

Banquo's ghost 

The political slaughter of the former prime minister and Labor leader Kevin Rudd was so swift that the assassins barely had any time to clean their weapons before preparing for the election.

Some newspapers such as the Guardian in the U.K. expressed admiration for the Labor machine in deposing a leader so swiftly and without nostalgia (Rudd had led the party to a victory in 2007, after 11 years in the wilderness) when the party was suffering in the polls and needed the blood transfusion of a new leader.

A hardcore of Australia media were sick of Rudd, too. He was governing in an increasingly autocratic manner, many of his decisions were made in his office with young advisers rather than going to cabinet.

When respected Sydney Morning Herald journalist David Marr published a lengthy essay on Rudd and his “angry heart” (including an infamous line that Rudd had described the Chinese delegation at the Copenhagen climate summit as "rat-fuckers"), there was a sense that finally the truth about Rudd was emerging.

But many Australians are not political or media insiders. They may not have cared for Rudd's harsh language and may have been baffled by reports of his temper, but they had installed him in the Lodge only a few years ago and were rewarded for their choice when Australia was one of the few Western countries to have avoided a recession partly through the excellent stimulus policies of that government.

Working as an editor on a popular news website, readers' comments (in their thousands) reflected the bafflement at the way Rudd was deposed. It seemed — to many readers — incredibly unfair, not to mention anti-democratic. We elected him — was the tenor of the comments — and we will decide through the electoral process whether he stays or goes.

Kevin Rudd (left) and Julia Gillard (right) in Sydney on July 30, 2009. (Torsten Blackwood/Getty Images)

The "real Julia," with her easy manner, her charm and broad working class accent, rubbed up uncomfortably with the image of the midnight assassin — the deputy who promised and promised and promised to remain loyal, and then turned around and toppled him when the party sniffed weak poll results.

Gillard has promised never to reveal the contents of her conversation with Rudd the night she challenged his leadership. But the issue has dogged the campaign. Rudd has become Banquo's ghost — haunting not just the margins but the core of the campaign.

In a meeting just over a week ago — the first of the campaign — Rudd and Gillard met before the cameras to discuss strategy for taking marginal seats in the northeastern state of Queensland. Rudd would not look her in the eye. It made extremely uncomfortable viewing.

Adding to the drama, Rudd had been accused of leaking damaging cabinet discussions to the media, which showed Gillard did not support key Labor policies for pensioners or parental leave. Rudd has denied being the leaker.

Then, dramatically, he had to be admitted to hospital at the start of the campaign to have his gallbladder removed. Political cartoonists made much of the exhaustion of his bile ducts.

Rudd, who as prime minister had kept a fairly tight rein on his emotions, wept before the cameras the day he left office. He appeared and still remains to appear deeply wounded by his treatment at the hands of his party.

He is back on the campaign trail — working to get a Gillard Labor government elected. (He has been promised a part-time role with the U.N. if it is.)

Australians, who pride themselves on a nation of a "fair go" and loyalty, seem unsettled by this rough political play. What does the brutal treatment of Rudd say about Gillard's character, they ask? What does this say about the character of the Labor government? And who’s to say that if Gillard gets in, she too won’t become a victim of yet another local incarnation of a night of the long knives? After all, it's not the first time.