Australian election: voters to go to polls in battle of ‘bulldozer’ and ‘builder’

Australians head to the polls on Saturday with the opposition Labor party, led by Anthony Albanese, hoping to end nine years of conservative rule.

The Liberal-National coalition government, headed by Scott Morrison, goes into the election with 75 MPs in the 151-seat House of Representatives, one short of the majority needed to govern without crossbench support.

Labor has been ahead in opinion polls since the campaign began, but the lead has narrowed in the final week of the campaign, and the party is haunted by its failure at the last election, in 2019, when the polls wrongly suggested it would win.

The six-week election campaign has largely been an attritional slog between two uninspiring leaders, but enlivened by high-profile independent candidates and minor parties challenging the offerings of the government and opposition.

Morrison’s Liberal party has come under pressure in formerly safe inner-city seats, which have been targeted by grassroots campaigns backed by millions of dollars in donations from the lobby group Climate 200 and supporting, almost exclusively, female candidates.

The independents are running on a platform of stronger action to address the climate crisis, establishing a national anti-corruption body and addressing gender inequality, all areas where Morrison’s government is seen as weak.

Despite the push by the independents and the Greens to put global heating on the agenda, neither major party has committed to strong climate action. The coalition committed, after much reluctance from the rural-based National party, to a target of net zero emissions by 2050, but includes new gas projects in its technology-led recovery. Three weeks into the campaign a Nationals senator, Matt Canavan, declared the net zero ambition “all over bar the shouting”.

Labor presented a modest plan hinged on building more efficient transmission lines and reducing industrial emissions, which has been supported by the business lobby as at least representing some steps towards a credible policy.

Among the seats targeted by independent campaigns is Kooyong, the inner-city Melbourne seat held by the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.

Government MPs in target areas, including Frydenberg, have attempted to distance themselves from the unpopular Morrison and instead called in the conservative former prime minister John Howard to campaign extensively in an attempt to keep their seats.

If even a few independent candidates are successful it could result in a hung parliament, the first since 2010. In the upper house, where minor parties have a better chance of election and overall majorities are rare, the Greens hope to gain three seats, which would bring the party’s Senate team to 12.

Morrison has focused his campaign on electorates in the outer suburbs and regional cities that have traditionally been held by Labor, in what has been described as an emulation of the “red wall” strategy employed by Boris Johnson in the 2019 UK election.

He has shaped his pitch for re-election on the government’s record in getting Australia through the Covid-19 pandemic with the economy intact and without significant loss of life in the first two years.

This year, however, Australia has experienced one of the highest Covid transmission rates per capita in the world, with 5,633 deaths since the start of 2022, compared with 2,239 in 2020 and 2021 combined. Morrison said in the last week of the campaign that there was no need for further public health measures to reverse this trend.

Morrison promised to change the way he governed if re-elected, admitting to being “a bit of a bulldozer”.

Albanese has campaigned largely on the platform of not being Scott Morrison. “This government has been there for almost a decade, this prime minister had four years in office, and what he’s saying is ‘if you vote for Scott Morrison, I’ll change’ … well, if you want change, change the government,” Albanese said.

The Labor leader, who was the manager of government business in the 2010-13 parliament, the most legislatively productive in Australia’s history despite Labor having no majority, said he was a “builder” to Morrison’s bulldozer.

“A bulldozer wrecks things. A bulldozer knocks things over. I’m a builder, that’s what I am. I will build things in this country,” he said.

Albanese suffered early from repeated gaffes, including his failure to name the cash rate (the central bank interest rate) or the employment rate on the opening day of the campaign, leading to repeated criticism from Morrison and the Murdoch press, particularly Sky News, that he was not across policy detail.

He contracted Covid two weeks into the campaign and spent a week in isolation.

Both major parties have focused on the cost of living, as Australia faces a housing affordability crisis, the first rise in the cash rate since 2010, and wages growing at half the inflation rate.

Labor has promised to support wage increases for low-paid workers, address the gender wage gap, boost manufacturing, and introduce a $392m housing equity scheme that would allow the government to provide a contribution of up to 40% of the purchase price of a new home.

Albanese said he would support a minimum wage increase of 5.1%, in line with inflation, which would amount to about $1 an hour for workers on the minimum wage. Morrison called that “incredibly reckless” and said such a rise “would force small businesses potentially out of business all together”.

“Anthony Albanese is a loose unit on the economy,” Morrison said.

The coalition then announced its own plan to address the extreme housing affordability crisis, which would allow Australians to access their superannuation to buy their first home, a move experts say would increase house prices and shrink the retirement savings of millions of Australians.

Neither party has backed an increase in Australia’s unemployment benefits, which are below the poverty line, and they remain in lockstep on Australia’s hardline policies on asylum seekers.

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