Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison called federal elections for May 21 on Sunday, launching a come-from-behind battle to stay in power after three years rocked by floods, bushfires, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Morrison’s conservative government is struggling to woo Australia’s 17 million voters, lagging behind the opposition Labour Party in a string of opinion polls despite presiding over a rebounding economy with a 13-year-low jobless rate of four per cent.
“It’s a choice between a strong future and an uncertain one. It’s a choice between a government you know and a Labor opposition that you don’t,” Morrison told a news conference in Canberra.
Polls show much of the electorate distrusts the 53-year-old leader, who fashions himself as a typical Australian family man and is unafraid of advertising his Pentecostal Christian faith.
Aiming to end nine years of Liberal-National Party rule is 59-year-old Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese.
The opposition leader started the six-week race to the poll pushing a message of optimism before highlighting bruising attacks on Morrison’s character emanating from his own government.
“He’s running in an election campaign, whereby his deputy prime minister has said he’s a hypocrite and a liar,” Albanese told media in Sydney.
“We can and we must do better. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to imagine a better future and Labor has the policies and plans to shape that future.”
A recent Newspoll survey showed Labor leading the coalition 54 percent to 46 percent on a two-party basis.
Morrison and Albanese were in a statistical tie as preferred prime minister for the next three-year term.
Multiple surveys show the cost of living, with gasoline prices notably soaring since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is a key concern ahead of the election, in which voting is compulsory.
In a pre-election spree, the government announced an array of giveaways, including a fuel tax cut and a tax rebate for about half of the adult population.
But extreme weather events blamed on an overheating planet, and the government’s response, have also unnerved many Australians.
– High stakes –
Morrison is a strident supporter of Australia’s vast fossil fuel industry.
He has vowed to mine and export coal for as long as there are buyers, touted a “gas-fired recovery” from the pandemic, and resisted global calls to cut carbon emissions faster by 2030.
As treasurer in 2017, he famously took a chunk of coal into parliament and told Labor: “This is coal, don’t be afraid.”
Morrison has been panned, too, over his handling of climate-related disasters in Australia.
During the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires, which killed more than 30 people, Morrison took his family on a Christmas holiday to Hawaii.
After cutting his break short, Morrison memorably told reporters he was sure people understood that: “I don’t hold a hose, mate, and I don’t sit in a control room.”
“Morrison’s position was virtually untenable as a result of the Hawaii holiday,” said Mark Kenny, professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.
But the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic “changed everything,” he said, turning people’s minds to a new, global crisis.
Morrison rightly injected “vast amounts of money” into the economy, but the vaccine rollout was painfully slow and he “messed up” the distribution of self-administered rapid antigen tests, Kenny said.
More recently, a deadly two-week east coast flooding disaster in late February and early March left residents seething at a perceived lack of government preparation and emergency help.
Morrison has also struggled to win over women voters after his handling of rape allegations made by a female political staffer in government, as well as young voters repelled by his pro-coal stance.
Backed by a climate-change activist fund, more than a dozen women are gaining support as independent, centrist candidates — many in traditionally conservative seats in the cities.
But few people are ruling out a Morrison win.
“Things can happen that change the dynamic incredibly quickly,” said Michele Levine, chief executive of Roy Morgan pollsters.
Morrison has defied the odds before, winning what he described as a “miracle’ election in May 2019 despite trailing in most polls.