Howard upbeat as Australians go to the polls

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Just hours before Australians go to the polls in a federal election, it looks like the predicted landslide win by Labour could turn out to be a close-run thing.

The opposition party, out of power since 1996, has seen a consistent lead over the incumbent Liberals halve in one recent poll to 4%.

Prime Minister John Howard, seeking a fifth term in office and widely expected to suffer a catastrophic defeat, was upbeat today.

AFP quotes him as telling reporters in Melbourne:

“I believe the coalition can win this election. I believe that there is a bit of a tide coming back. I sense it in the streets.”

A poll of 2,600 Australian voters, to be published tomorrow in The Australian, shows Labour on 52% against 48% for the government.

However, other polls show Labour as much as 14% ahead, meaning it is still likely that Kevin Rudd will become Australia’s 26th Prime Minister.

Gay rights have been a theme in this race.

The announcement of a general election prompted evangelical groups in the country to begin campaigning against gay equality.

The Labour party took the line that marriage is for heterosexuals only, and would grant legal concessions to homosexuals, but not the legal status of marriage.

“On the institution of marriage itself, our view is between a man and woman and it’s just been our traditional, continuing view,” Mr Rudd said in October.

When asked if in the future this position would look as closed-minded as racist beliefs of the past, Mr Rudd said it was what he believed in.

However, Labour will support changes to the law to remove inequities in the tax and benefits system that discriminate against same-sex couples.

A report in June by Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) recommended that 58 laws need to be changed to grant gay, bisexual and lesbian Australians equal rights.

These include key changes in the way that gay couples receive benefits from their relationships.

The 68-year-old Prime Minister is a despised by many in Australia’s LGBT community.

In 2004 he passed federal legislation banning same-sex marriage and earlier this year said that HIV positive immigrants should not be allowed into the country.

Mr Rudd has led the Labour party since December 2006, and recent revelations that he visited a strip club in New York while on official business did much to endear him to Australians who previously viewed him as grey and boring.

Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull will be defending the Sydney seat of Wentworth, which after boundary changes now includes gay districts such as Darlinghurst and Kings Cross.

Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey is seeking re-election in North Sydney, another constituency with a high concentration of LGBT voters.

Both seats have seen fierce campaigning and attempts to get out the gay vote.