As Australia election campaign heats up, PM Morrison touts jobs credentials after rival's gaffe

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By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday put jobs at the forefront of his federal election campaign, promising to create 1.3 million more over the next five years the day after his main rival was stumped by questions about the jobless rate.

In an election set to focus on wage growth and cost-of-living pressures, opposition leader Anthony Albanese on Monday failed to answer reporters' questions about unemployment numbers and interest rates as the campaign for the May 21 election kicked off.

"We've got a massive economic opportunity coming out of this (coronavirus) pandemic. You can't risk it with a Labor Party and a Labor leader that can't manage money and has no economic plan," Morrison told reporters from the marginal Labor-held seat of Parramatta in western Sydney.

Polls out on Monday showed Albanese-led, centre-left Labor were ahead of Morrison's conservative Liberal-National Party coalition, even as they showed the prime minister extending his lead as the country's preferred leader.

Albanese, in damage control mode after his economic data gaffe, apologised for the errors. Quoting one of pop star Taylor Swift's biggest hits, he said he will "Shake it off" after reporters bombarded him with questions on whether the slip would cost Labor the election.

"My approach is, I fessed up, I took responsibility, that is what I will do," Albanese said. "From time to time, if ever I make a mistake, I will own it and I will accept responsibility."

Morrison said "despite fires, floods, a pandemic, a global recession, economic coercion from China and now a war in Europe," his government had driven the unemployment rate down to 13-year lows of 4%, from 5.7% when Labor left office in 2013. On Monday, Albanese initially said he thought the current rate was around 5.4%.

"We've got the runs on the board," Morrison said in a reference to cricket, one of Australia's most popular sport, "and proven plans to deliver ... Boosting jobs creation to the levels we saw even before the pandemic is key to our plan for a stronger economy."

The new jobs would be created "right across the economy," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told Channel Seven.

Australia's unemployment rate looks certain to fall into the 3% range for the first time since the early 1970s, several months ahead of central bank forecasts, with some economists predicting it could dip below the budget forecast of 3.75%.

Wage growth was also forecast to accelerate, but not by enough to outpace inflation, leaving real incomes set to shrink this year.

To pacify disgruntled voters, the budget in March increased a tax break for 10 million low- and middle-income earners and offered one-off cash payments for pensioners and a temporary cut in fuel taxes.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Sam Holmes and Kenneth Maxwell)