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Australia's Labour Party ends six-year reign as opposition comes to power

Australia's Liberal Party-led opposition has swept to power in a national election and ended six years of Labour Party rule.

Tony Abbott, centre, and his daughters Frances, far left, Louise, second right, and Bridget, far right, and his wife Margaret, second left
Tony Abbott, centre, and his daughters Frances, far left, Louise, second right, and Bridget, far right, and his wife Margaret, second left

Prime minister Kevin Rudd conceded defeat today.

The Liberal Party-led coalition managed to win over a disenchanted public by promising to end a hated tax on carbon emissions, boost the nation's flagging economy and bring about political stability after years of Labour Party infighting.

A win for the coalition comes despite the relative unpopularity of party leader Tony Abbott. Abbott is a 55-year-old former Roman Catholic seminarian and Rhodes scholar who has long struggled to connect with women voters and was once dubbed "unelectable" by opponents.

"I know that Labour hearts are heavy across the nation tonight, and as your prime minister and as your parliamentary leader of the great Australian Labour Party, I accept responsibility," Kevin Rudd said in a speech to supporters, after calling opposition leader Tony Abbott to concede defeat. "I gave it my all, but it was not enough for us to win."

But voters were largely fed up with Labour and Rudd, after a years-long power struggle between him and his former deputy, Julia Gillard. Gillard, who became the nation's first female prime minister after ousting Rudd in a party vote in 2010, ended up losing her job to Rudd three years later in a similar internal party coup.

The drama, combined with Labour reneging on an election promise by imposing a deeply unpopular tax on the nation's biggest carbon polluters, proved deadly for Labour's re-election chances.

"This is an election lost by the government rather than won by Tony Abbott," Former Labour prime minister Bob Hawke told Sky News.

Abbott, who becomes Australia's third prime minister in three months, will aim to end a period of extraordinary political instability in Australia.

The swing away from Labour was a resounding rejection of Australia's first minority government since the Second World War. Voters disliked the deals and compromises struck between Labour, the minor Greens party and independent MPs to keep their fragile, disparate and sometime chaotic coalition together for the past three years, including the carbon tax.

Abbott has vowed to scrap the carbon tax from July 2014 - two years after it was implemented - and instead introduce taxpayer-funded incentives for polluters to operate cleaner.

It is unclear whether Abbott will be able to pass the necessary law changes through parliament, but he has threatened to hold early elections if the Senate thwarts him.

Abbott's popularity seems to have peaked at the right time. Two polls published this past week by Sydney-based market researcher Newspoll are the only ones in which Abbott beat Rudd as preferred prime minister since Newspoll first began comparing the two leaders in 2010.

There is unlikely to be any honeymoon period for Abbott, as he inherits a slowing economy, hurt by the cooling of a mining boom that kept the resource-rich nation out of recession during the global financial crisis.

Australia's new government has promised to slash foreign aid spending as it concentrates on returning the budget to surplus. Labour spent billions of dollars on stimulus projects to avoid recession. But declining corporate tax revenues from the mining slowdown forced Labour to break a promise to return the budget to surplus in the last fiscal year.

Abbott has also promised to repeal a tax on coal and iron ore mining companies, which he blames in part for the downturn in the mining boom.

Abbott was a senior minister in the government of prime minister John Howard, who ruled for 11 years until Rudd first took office in 2007.

Under Howard, Australia - one of the world's worst greenhouse gas polluters on a per capita basis - and the United States had been the only wealthy countries to refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on reducing global warming.

One of Rudd's first acts as prime minister was to ratify the Protocol, and he became Australia's most popular prime minister of the past three decades with his promise to introduce a carbon emissions trading scheme. His popularity fell after he failed to persuade the Senate to deliver the scheme.

Today's election is also likely have brought Australia's first Aboriginal woman to parliament. Former Olympian Nova Peris is almost certain to win a Senate seat for Labour in the Northern Territory, but the final results will not be known for days. Less likely is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's bid for a Senate seat in Victoria state.

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