Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a federal election for May 21 on Sunday, launching a battle to stay in power after three years rocked by floods, bushfires and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Morrison’s Conservative government is struggling to win over Australia’s 17 million voters, trailing the opposition Labor Party in a series of opinion polls, despite presiding over a recovering economy with unemployment. 4%, the lowest for 13 years.
“This election is about you. Nobody else. This is about our country and its future,” Morrison said.
“I know that Australians have been through a very difficult time. I also know that Australia continues to face very difficult challenges in the years to come,” he told a press conference at Canberra.
Polls show much of the electorate distrusts the 53-year-old leader, who presents himself as a typical Australian family man and is unafraid to advertise his Pentecostal Christian faith.
In a grueling race to the vote, politicians including two disgruntled members of his own Liberal Party have accused him of being a bully and an autocrat, with one saying he had “no moral compass”.
59-year-old opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese is aiming to end nine years of rule by the Liberal-National Party, a cautious campaigner focused on Morrison’s performance in the face of crises.
It’s a tactic that seems to work.
A recent Newspoll survey showed Labor leading the coalition by 54% to 46% on a bipartisan basis.
Morrison and Albanese were statistically tied as preferred prime minister for the next three-year term.
Multiple surveys show that the cost of living, with gasoline prices soaring since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is a major concern ahead of elections, where voting is compulsory.
In a pre-election frenzy, the government announced a series of giveaways, including a fuel tax cut and a tax refund for about half the adult population.
But extreme weather events blamed on an overheating planet and the government’s response have also baffled many Australians.
“Not a Race”
Morrison is a strong supporter of Australia’s vast fossil fuel industry.
He has promised to mine and export coal for as long as there are buyers, touted a post-pandemic ‘gas recovery’ and resisted global calls to cut carbon emissions faster by 2030.
As Treasurer in 2017, he ushered a lump of coal into Parliament and told Labour, ‘It’s coal, have no fear.’
Morrison has also been criticized for 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 vacation to Hawaii.
After cutting his hiatus short, Morrison told reporters he was sure people understood that: “I’m not holding a pipe, mate, and I’m not sitting in a control room.”
“Morrison’s position was virtually untenable due to the Hawaii vacation,” said Mark Kenny, a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.
But the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic “changed everything”, he said, drawing attention to a new global crisis.
Morrison rightly pumped “huge sums of money” into the economy, but vaccine rollout was painfully slow and it “messed up” the distribution of self-administered rapid antigen tests, Kenny said.
More recently, a deadly two-week flood on the east coast in late February and early March left residents reeling over the government’s perceived lack of preparedness and emergency aid.
Morrison also struggled to win over female voters after dealing with rape allegations made by a female government political staffer, as well as young voters rebuffed by her pro-coal stance.
Supported by a fund of climate change activists, more than a dozen women are gaining support as independent and centrist candidates – many of whom hold traditionally conservative seats in cities.
But few people rule out a Morrison win.
“Things can happen that change the dynamic incredibly quickly,” said Michele Levine, general manager of pollsters at Roy Morgan.
Morrison has previously defied all odds, winning what he described as a “miracle” election in May 2019, despite falling behind in most polls.
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