SYDNEY - Australia's likely next prime minister Tony Abbott on Monday defended his "baddies versus baddies" description of Syria as he was accused of graduating from the "John Wayne school of international relations".
Abbott is the frontrunner to win September 7 elections over centre-left Labor incumbent Kevin Rudd, with a new poll on Monday showing he has overtaken his rival as preferred prime minister for the first time in four years.
The Newspoll in The Australian showed 43 per cent of voters now see Abbott as the better prime minister to Rudd's 41 per cent, while his conservative coalition has opened a 54 to 46 per cent lead over Labor on a two-party basis.
While Abbott is on track for victory, his diplomatic credentials are increasingly being questioned after he said on Sunday the escalating Syria conflict "is not goodies versus baddies, it is baddies versus baddies".
Rudd mocked the simplistic language as that of a graduate from the "John Wayne school of international relations", referring to the legendary movie star who made his name as a gunslinger in Hollywood westerns.
"International relations is more complex than a 1950s John Wayne western," said Rudd, a former foreign minister and diplomat.
"I really do question his temperament for occupying the highest office of the land."
Abbott defended his remarks, saying: "I've made the point that this is a civil war between two more or less equally unsavoury sides."
"I think we're seeing a little bit more hyperventilation from a desperately shrill government," he added.
"Interestingly, people such as David Cameron and Bill Clinton have referred to good guys and not so good guys. I think the odd use of colloquialism is perfectly appropriate if you are trying to explain to the public exactly what the situation is."
The remarks came as Australia assumed the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council and as US President Barack Obama launched a lobbying effort to sway sceptical lawmakers as they weigh whether to support military strikes against Syria.