Australians vote in cliffhanger elections

Polls opened at 8:00 am (2200 GMT) with 14 million electors taking part in a mandatory vote across the huge country, with last-minute opinion surveys showing only a minute gap between the two leaders.

A Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper gave Gillard's Labour a 50.2 to 49.8 per cent lead over the Liberal/National coalition headed by Abbott, raising the prospect of the first hung parliament since 1940.

A separate Nielsen poll put Labour ahead 52-48 per cent, while a Roy Morgan survey gave the government a 51-49 per cent lead.

Gillard's centre-left Labour has struggled to reassure voters after June's shock ousting of elected prime minister Kevin Rudd, lifting Abbott's hopes of a surprise victory.

"When everyone asked I said it would be a cliffhanger... and so it's proving today," Gillard said.

Gillard, 48, a red-headed former lawyer who was born in Wales, has pledged improved education and healthcare and played up Labour's economic record, as well as popular plans for a national broadband network.

Abbott, a 52-year-old religious conservative who has doubts about mankind's role in climate change, has targeted fears over illegal immigration and questioned Labour's spending record, as well as its knifing of Rudd.

The right-leaning coalition needs a swing of 2.3 per cent to return to power less than three years after Rudd ousted 11-year prime minister John Howard, pledging action on climate change and the impoverished Aboriginal minority.

Victory for Abbott would make Labour the first one-term government since 1932, when the party's James Scullin lost power during turmoil caused by the Great Depression.

Both sides are targeting a swathe of marginal seats in resource-rich Queensland -- Rudd's home state -- and western Sydney, where rapid population growth has put pressure on services and raised concerns about immigration.

As campaigning closed, Abbott looked to prove his credentials as a vigorous go-getter with a 36-hour overnight push from Thursday to Friday. On Saturday, he manned a beachside barbecue at his local surf club in Sydney.

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