By ROD McGUIRK, Associated Press
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Embattled Prime Minister Julia Gillard insists she will lead her unpopular government to victory at elections next year despite persistent media reports that Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is plotting to overthrow her in an internal power struggle.
Speculation that Rudd will soon move against the woman who ousted him as prime minister in 2010 is dominating political reporting in Australia and destabilizing Gillard's government, which opinion polls suggest is headed for electoral defeat.
Gillard, Australia's first woman prime minister, told Seven Network television late Sunday: "I'm very confident in my leadership."
She said there is "no need" to call a leadership ballot of ruling Labor Party lawmakers to prove that she has more support than Rudd.
Previous Australian prime ministers have used such tactics to head off looming leadership challenges in the past. Rudd publicly maintains that he supports Gillard and is content with being foreign minister.
Rudd supporters were buoyed by a poll by market researcher Nielsen published in Fairfax Media newspapers on Monday that found 57 percent of respondents preferred Rudd as prime minister, compared to 35 percent who preferred Gillard.
The poll was based on a random Australia-wide telephone survey of 1,400 voters and has a 2.6 percentage point margin of error.
Parliament resumes for the first time this year on Tuesday. At a meeting Sunday, Gillard warned government colleagues against feeding media speculation about leadership, saying that a "lack of discipline" within center-left Labor ranks would only help the conservative opposition coalition.
Rudd was overseas and missed that meeting.
Sydney's The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported on Monday that 47 Labor lawmakers now support Gillard as leader, 37 want a return to Rudd and 19 remain undecided.
Senior government minister Simon Crean, one of the few Labor lawmakers to publicly acknowledge Rudd's comeback ambitions, said last week that the foreign minister would never again be leader because he was a "prima donna" and not a "team player."
Rudd "can't be prime minister again ... he's got to accept that," Crean told Fairfax Radio.
"There is no contender that has the numbers. And the sooner the party wakes up to that, the sooner that small group that keeps leaking to newspapers about the possibilities of comebacks and all those sorts of things, the better off we will be," he added.
Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corp., which owns 70 percent of Australia's newspapers including The Daily Telegraph, has waded into the leadership debate, tweeting Sunday that Gillard is a "prisoner of minority greenies." He was referring to the minority government's reliance on the minor Greens party to maintain a slender majority in the House of Representatives and to get legislation through the Senate.
Murdoch described Rudd as a "delusional" politician "who nobody could work with. Nobody else?"
Greens leader Bob Brown defended Gillard and blamed sexism for a barrage of negative press.
"She is getting a rough time ... and quite a bit of the criticism is sexist and unfair and unrelenting," Brown told reporters.
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