CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Saturday called a general election for August 21, kicking off a bitter campaign battle over asylum seekers, economic management and climate change.
"Today I seek a mandate from the Australian people to lead Australia forward," she told a press conference after seeking permission from Governor-General Quentin Bryce, the representative of Queen Elizabeth II.
"This morning I asked Her Excellency the governor-general to dissolve the House of Representatives so that elections can occur for the House and half of the Senate on Saturday, August 21."
Gillard, 48, said she was honouring a pledge to seek election by the people she made when she became Australia's first woman prime minister three weeks ago after ruthlessly toppling her predecessor Kevin Rudd in a party coup.
The centre-left Labor Party leader, who will face off conservative Liberal leader Tony Abbott in the poll for leadership of the country, drew the battle lines for the campaign, saying voters faced a stark choice.
"This election I believe presents Australians with a very clear choice - the choice is about whether we move Australia forward or go back," she said.
The prime minister said that "moving forward" meant better health and education services and stronger protection for the nation's borders, while treating asylum seekers with "dignity and respect."
She said her government had "a strong plan, a real plan that takes away from people smugglers the product that they sell", also accusing Abbott of seeking to slash funding for health and education.
Welsh-born Gillard has spent three weeks frantically clearing the decks of the thorny issues that helped bring down her former boss Rudd, announcing a policy on how to handle an influx of boat people and watering down a disputed mining tax proposed by Rudd.
She has enjoyed a polls jump after Labor's ratings plummeted under Rudd, but has also faced a backlash over plans to outsource the processing of asylum seekers to Pacific nations and about the manner in which she came to power.
Gillard, who said when she came to power that Rudd's government had lost its way, said she had begun getting it back on track by announcing plans for the regional asylum seeker processing centre and resolving a battle with miners over the now axed super tax on resources profits.
"Through doing those things I've demonstrated to the Australian people the kind of way which I will lead the nation," Gillard said.