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Australia’s first female PM fights for her political life, haunted by the past in a surreal campaign marked by brutal infighting. It’s nasty enough Down Under right now. No need for Mad Mel Gibson to make it any worse.

Mel Gibson

Top news: It's best described as Australia’s "haunted house” election campaign. Voters are being spooked by a posse of ghosts from political battles past, and forced to choose between two leaders — Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her conservative opponent Tony Abbott — who are generally thought to be campaigning like zombies. It’s fitting, really, because it all started with blood-letting, and there’s been no let up in the nastiness since.

It seems an age ago, but it’s only six weeks since Kevin Rudd, leader of the center-left Labor Party, was overthrown as prime minister in a swift and shocking party coup. Rudd’s replacement: his hitherto loyal deputy Gillard, who became Australia’s first female prime minister (and an unmarrried, childless, atheist PM to boot, just to round-off her groundbreaking resume).

The logic at the time was plain. An election was imminent, Rudd was sinking in the polls, and the popular and plain-spoken Gillard was the obvious choice to secure re-election.

When the new PM announced an Aug. 21 national election, all seemed to be going to plan, with Labor’s public standing revived, victory apparently assured. Gillard had moved swiftly to act on three big problems that had been hurting Rudd — a new tax on mining companies, a confused climate-change policy, and the hyper-sensitive issue of Third World asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores by boat. So far, so good.

Then the ghosts came out.

It was bad enough that Gillard’s three quick policy fixes all met with varying degrees of derision. Worse has been a relentless campaign of damaging leaks from within her own party — leaks coming, theory has it, from the man who haunts her most, the deposed Rudd.

One leak of secret cabinet discussions painted Gillard as a foe of two popular policies — government-funded parental leave, and an aged-pension increase. Meanwhile, three other former party leaders joined Rudd to make it a quartet of campaign spooks, with former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating engaging in a public slanging match and ex-leader Mark Latham fanning the flames of Labor disunity.

The result? An unsurprising plunge in support, with recent polls suggesting the erratic Abbott — once widely regarded as unelectable — may be surging to an improbable victory. As one commentator put it, with Labor busy beating up on itself, most days Abbott has merely had to turn up.

Even a highly publicized makeover in a glossy magazine didn’t drown out the bad news for Gillard. But she is renowned as a fighter, and shows no sign of surrendering. Sensing that the public hankers for the down-to-earth straight-talker they’ve always liked over the tightly scripted automaton of the election trail, this week the PM declared she’s rebooting her campaign to let voters see the “real Julia.”

It might just work. And this week Abbott made his first major gaffe.

After a TV debate early in the campaign, he had challenged Gillard to two more one-on-one showdowns. She said no, then abruptly changed her mind. Abbott wondered aloud, and repeatedly: “Are you suggesting to me that when it comes from Julia, 'No' doesn't mean 'No'?"

Abbott seemed clueless rather than callous in having casually twisted the mantra of anti-rape campaigners. But for a man whose major political problem is a lack of support from women, and who is trying to navigate the new and untested territory of competing against a woman PM, it did not play well.

The media’s scorekeepers awarded a rare daily victory to Gillard. With 17 days until voters cast their ballots, she’ll be hoping it’s a small sign the momentum is at last swinging her way.

In this election, anything seems possible. After days of wild rumors that he was venting his fury by vandalizing his own party’s poll chances, chief leak suspect Rudd was last week rushed to hospital to have his gall bladder removed. Wags were quick to note that the gall bladder stores bile, of which the dumped ex-PM is assumed to have an abundant figurative supply.

Many wondered: did the surgeons also remove the knife from his back? It’s been that sort of campaign Down Under, and isn’t looking like it will turn from nasty to nice any time soon.

Money: It was Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign that immortalized the line “It’s the economy, stupid.” Were that holding true in Australia right now, the troubled Julia Gillard would be cruising to a landslide election win, with recent economic data suggesting the nation continues to power ahead with the same energy that saw it defy the global financial crisis even as every other major western economy plunged into recession. 

Last week, Nobel Prize-winning U.S. economist Joseph Stiglitz arrived Down Under and declared the Government’s global financial crisis-inspired stimulus package to be “one of the most impressive economic policies I've seen, ever.”

The good times continue to roll. Latest unemployment figures: just 5.1 perent. Inflation figures last week: a lower-than-expected 2.7 percent. The Australian dollar: holding at close to parity with its U.S. counterpart at around 91 cents to the greenback. Building approvals: up 13 percent.

And then there’s the on-going resources boom. All that good news has many commentators wondering how a government presiding over such wonders can possibly be struggling to hold power.

Elsewhere: It’s been noted in this space before: Australia likes its global superstars, and is proud to lay claim to more than its fair share of them. In LA, they call themselves the Gumleaf Mafia — a Kidman here, a Crowe there, a Newton-John from days of yore. And always a Cate Blanchett big-screen turn to bank some annual Oscar buzz. But there are limits. 

Raffish, blunt and occasionally crude Aussies may be, but they’re more than ready to hand back the ownership papers on Mel Gibson. The extraordinary scandal surrounding Gibson’s brutal split from girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva has caused head-shaking around the world, but Down Under, it’s been accompanied by a tinge of sadness.

Before he was Hollywood’s billionaire bad-boy, Gibson was an Australian lad-made-good, held in great affection as a result of movie roles that predated his global stardom. He starred as a handsome larrikin in the 1981 Peter Weir war film Gallipoli — a national treasure here, seen by some as the best Australian movie ever made — and he first greased the wheels of the fame train in the cult classic Mad Max.

Everybody loved Mel. Now? Not so much. When spurious stories spread that the disgraced actor might move back here, few were rolling out the welcome mat. (He had one public defender — an old acting buddy — but even Gibson’s large family didn’t come out in support, with one Sydney-based brother saying only that they’d barely spoken in many months.)

Aussies don’t want a favorite son this soiled, and are now ready to remember what they once were happy to forget: Gibson isn’t really an Aussie at all. He was born in New York.

And the message from his former hometown of Sydney? This time, America, you can keep him.