Australia: who's who in the election

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.

The "Mad Monk"

Tony Abbott (left) pushes Melanie Battershell in Melbourne on Aug. 13, 2010. (William West/Getty Images)

The Liberal party have also had their own round of political assassinations — Tony Abbott is the third leader in three years having won a challenge against the former leader Malcolm Turnbull, a multi-millionaire stockbroker whose principled stance on climate change and the republic make him an unlikely darling of the left.

Tony Abbott is no such darling. A former Rhodes Scholar, journalist and seminarian nicknamed the Mad Monk, he has been of the hard right, though now he is furiously attempting to reposition himself as a quasi-feminist leader with a paid parental leave scheme so generous that it compares only with socialist Scandinavian countries. Previously he had spoken out against abortion, stem cell research and cervical cancer vaccination.

So much has he alienated women voters that he has had to drag his (rather unwilling-looking) wife and young daughters around on the campaign trail — and continuously make the point that he understands women.

But he is dogged by characteristic bluntness — has said climate change is “crap” and admitted that not everything he says is "gospel truth."

Somewhere along the line, he picked up the persona of "mad monk" — an image earned through his combination of right-wing Catholic views and awkward outbursts.

But so far he has executed an effective campaign, and hasn’t made too many missteps, apart from being unable to explain his party’s broadband policy in a major TV interview and dismissing his lack of knowledge of policy detail with a glib “I’m no techhead.”

He has certainly been "on message" the whole campaign. His slogans (or "action contract" as he calls it) get mentioned with an almost numbing frequency, including his pledge to "stop the boats."

Australia’s illegal boat arrivals are relatively low in number compared to those entering the U.K. and Europe, yet both Abbott and Gillard have made this a central part of their campaign, maybe as a result of focus groups in marginal seats, for whom "boat people" are the favored bogeymen. Being tough on illegals (rather than say being tough on climate change or tough on homelessness) has many on the left despairing — and may provide a boost to the Green party which is tipped to win its first seat in the lower house of parliament this election.

On the topic of personal appeal, he has played the role of macho Aussie male to perfection. Each morning before he hits the gruelling campaign trail, he cycles around 23 miles. He also competes in rigorous Ironman competitions, resulting in no shortage of opportunities for the physically fit 52-year-old to emerge dripping from the surf before a wall of cameras wearing nothing more than a smug smile and a Speedo. But Australians, it turns out, are easily perturbed by overt displays of machismo, especially when it comes to public figures prancing around in their "budgie smugglers."

No doubt on the the advice of his media minders, he promised to refrain — where possible — from showing off about his admirable physique. 

Side-show Mark

A book display of Mark Latham's diaries in Melbourne Sept. 19, 2005. (William West/Getty Images)

According to News Limited opinion site The Punch, "a strange narrative has developed during this federal election campaign: that it is somehow boring."

Enter Mark Latham.

Latham, a former leader of the Labor Party, has been employed as a journalist on current affairs show "60 Minutes" and turned up at a variety of political functions, strong-armed his way through the press pack, and confronted the politicians that he used to work alongside.

He ambushed the prime minister at an event and spoke to her in such aggressive tones that the CEO of the network who hired Latham was forced to apologize.

Latham, in his capacity as a "60 Minutes" reporter, confronted Abbott at a war veteran's policy announcement a few days later. As Latham promised not to break Abbott's arm in a meaty handshake, grumpy veterans booed and told him to "p*** of."

Then when "60 Minutes" aired last Sunday night, Latham expressed his disgust at the election campaign, the policies of both major parties, and urged viewers to return their ballots empty to the box in a form of protest.

Who said the election was boring?