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Australian PM clashes with rival in feisty debate as poll tightens

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Australian PM clashes with rival in feisty debate as poll tightens
FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, April 11, 2019. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas via REUTERS   -   Copyright  STRINGER(Reuters)
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By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s prime minister clashed with the leader of the opposition on Monday over tax, climate change and national security as the rivals squared-off in a televised debate hours after a poll showed the race narrowing.

Just weeks out from the May 18 election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a government led by the opposition Labor party would risk setting back the economy amid looming problems.

“We are facing stiff headwinds into the future for our economy,” Morrison told an audience of undecided voters in Western Australia state.

Labor party leader Bill Shorten said the economy was stoking inequality as he defended his plan to abolish generous tax concessions for some Australians to fund more spending on health and education.

Shorten’s debate performance will be scrutinised as Australia’s preeminent political poll showed his party’s lead was fast diminishing.

The Newspoll for the Australian newspaper showed Labor’s lead fell by a point to 51 percent to 49 percent for Morrison’s party, from the previous poll two weeks, ago on a two-party preferred basis, where votes are distributed until a winner is declared.

Morrison’s government had trailed Labor by 54 percent to 46 percent in March, before calling the election.

While the race has tightened, Labor is still expected to gain between six and 10 seats to give it the government, the poll showed.

But deals with minor parties could improve the ruling coalition’s prospects in preference-vote distributions.

Mining magnate Clive Palmer’s United Australian Party, campaigning Donald Trump-style to “Make Australia Great”, has overtaken One Nation to be the second-largest minor party, with 5 percent of the primary vote, the poll showed.

Labor has focused on its plans to boost spending on education, health and welfare, promising on Sunday A$4 billion (£2.1 billion) in childcare subsidies to a million low-income families and free dental care, worth A$2.4 billion, for the aged.

Morrison campaigned in Sydney on Sunday on the issue of immigration, promising to cut annual migrant numbers and freeze the refugee intake.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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