Australia poll shows govt slipping further behind

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CANBERRA, Oct 23 (Reuters) Australia's conservative government has slipped further behind the Labor opposition ahead of a November parliamentary election after both sides unveiled multi-billion dollar tax pledges, a new poll showed today.

The closely watched Newspoll in the Australian newspaper showed Labor leading Prime Minister John Howard's conservative coalition government by a comfortable 58 per cent to 42 per cent on preferences, a gap of 16 points.

This reversed a six-point narrowing between the two sides last week after Howard promised A34 billion dollars in income tax cuts on the opening day of the six-week election race to try and reverse a year of poor polls.

''This poll is radically at odds with the experience that we've had in the streets as government members over the last couple of weeks,'' government spokesman and Health Minister Tony Abbott said. But another unnamed conservative lawmaker told local radio the outlook was ''depressing''.

The poll, taken before a weekend leaders' debate won by Rudd, confirmed and widened a 10 to 12 point lead established by Labor in opinion surveys through the year. Labor also countered the government's tax plan with a A31 billion dollars package of its own.

Rudd at the weekend also announced a A1.5 billion dollars plan to pay half the cost of childcare, plus A2.3 billion dollars to refund school expenses and the cost of student computers.

Rudd's standing as preferred prime minister over the 11-year veteran Howard had also stretched ahead, according to the survey, gaining two points and rising to 50 per cent.

Howard's standing had slipped two points to 37 per cent approval.

''You don't take all this terribly seriously. I've got to win 16 seats and what I also know is i'm up against a very clever and very cunning politician,'' Rudd told local television after the poll's release. ''It's going to be very tough.'' Rudd, 50, has given Labor its best hope of winning its first election for 14 years ahead of the November 24 vote, promising generational change, an education revolution and reform of health and labour laws.

The election will also determine whether Australia keeps combat troops in Iraq and its stance on climate change, with Rudd promising to sign the Kyoto pact cutting greenhouse emissions.

Howard, 68, is fighting to overturn a mood among voters for change despite the country enjoying 17 straight years of economic expansion that have pushed unemployment to 33-year lows.

His government has delivered successive budgets in surplus and slashed taxes by A110 billion dollars.

But his promise of continued prosperity and more jobs has been blunted by successive interest rate rises to 6.5 per cent, hurting bedrock conservative support in outer city suburbs, where home affordability and interest rates are major issues.

Reuters AK VP0458

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