Australia image in Asia at stake as polls loom, FM says

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr urged his divided Labor party to close ranks Friday, warning that a poll victory for conservative rivals could harm the country's image in Asia.

"We've done ourselves a fair bit of harm in the leadership contest," Carr admitted to a US think-tank at the end of a week-long visit to Washington.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is battling to restore her credibility after a botched leadership coup led to a slew of ministers who had supported her rival Kevin Rudd quitting the cabinet.

She was re-elected unopposed as party leader on Thursday after former leader Rudd realised he did not have the numbers required and opted out just minutes before the vote.

But the domestic political drama has dealt a huge blow to her already slim prospects heading into a September national election.

"The Labor Party has to close its ranks. It's got to put its bickering behind it," Carr told the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It's got to focus on the countdown to the election... and fight like mad so that the Australian people understand the big choice before them."

Recent polls have shown that Labor would be crushed by the conservative opposition led by Tony Abbott if an election was held now.

But Carr voiced concerns that a conservative leadership would turn Australia away from its engagement with its neighbors in Asia, and more towards what Abbott has termed "the anglosphere."

"It suggests that if he were to be prime minister he'd be beating a retreat, from some sort of old-fashioned British dominion view of the world, and I think that would be sad. There'd be a lot of missed opportunities for Australia."

Asian nations would also misinterpret any such shift in focus, he warned.

"If a government of Australia and prime minister is talking about going back to the anglosphere then it could be distorted in a way that would be damning to Australia," he said.

It could even unfairly be interpreted as "something akin to Pauline Hanson's policies," the veteran Labor politician warned.

Hanson is the controversial former One Nation party leader, who once warned Australia was in danger of being swamped by Asians.

The anti-immigration firebrand said earlier this month she plans to run in this year's general election, saying politicians were out of touch with how ordinary Australians feel.

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