( AFP ) - Australian Prime Minister John Howard will be defeated decisively in Saturday's general elections, according to an exit poll taken for television channel Sky news.
The poll in key marginal seats gave Kevin Rudd's centre-left Labor Party 53 percent of the vote against 47 percent for Howard's conservative Liberal-National coalition, Sky news said.
The results, if backed up in the final tally, would give the 50-year-old Rudd a commanding majority in parliament.
The exit poll also showed Howard would lose his own seat of Bennelong in Sydney, which would make him the first prime minister to suffer such a humiliation in 78 years.
Howard, 68, has held the seat since 1974 and has been prime minister since 1996.
The exit poll result was announced half-an-hour before the first polling booths closed on the east coast of Australia and two-and-a-half hours before voting was due to end on the west coast.
Actual counting of the ballots was only due to begin after voting closed at 6:00pm local time -- 0700 GMT on the east coast and 0900 GMT in the west.
The exit poll surveyed more than 2,700 voters in 31 key marginal seats.
Extrapolating from the results, Labor would wind up with a 54 percent to 46 percent victory, Sky said.
Such a result would be in line with most opinion polls taken this year, but last-minute polls ahead of voting had shown Howard's party narrowing the gap significantly.
Labor's deputy leader Julia Gillard said after the exit poll had been announced she was confident of strong support for Labor because voters had been turned off by Howard's tough labour law reforms.
"I'm never confident until I see a number but my sense is people are looking for change," she told national television.
Liberal Senator Nick Minchin said evidence suggested there would be a swing towards the opposition but predicted that it would fall short of the 16 seats needed to form a government.
"This could be a night where we don't know the result," he said.
Howard had campaigned on his party's record on the economy, which is booming on the back of China's demand for its mineral resources, warning that a Labor victory would threaten the country's prosperity.
But he faced growing opposition fuelled by unpopular policies such as new labour laws which critics said cut wages and working conditions, support for the Iraq war and a refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
Rudd has pledged a swathe of changes in domestic and foreign policy, including tearing up the new labour laws, ratifying Kyoto and withdrawing Australian combat troops from Iraq.
The exit poll said that 58 percent of voters thought Howard was out of touch and should step down -- even though 71 percent felt his government team was better equipped to manage the economy.
Fifty-one percent of those polled believed Howard's government had been in office too long, while 59 percent said they did not want Howard's heir-apparent, Treasurer Peter Costello, to become prime minister.
Howard had announced that if re-elected he would retire before the end of his three-year term and hand over power to Costello.
Some 64 percent felt Rudd and Labor had fresh ideas, while only 39 percent felt the relatively youthful Rudd and his team were too inexperienced for government -- a charge repeatedly made by Howard's camp.
Voters listed health and hospitals, the economy, industrial relations and climate change as their top four priorities.
Labor needs to pick up at least 16 seats, or about a five percent gain in votes nationwide, to seize power with an outright majority in the 150-seat lower house of parliament.