Aussie polls show sharpest divide in years

Leader of the Australian opposition Bill Shorten (centre) and Labor candidate Cathy O'Toole (right), visiting Heatley State Primary School as part of the 2016 election campaign in Queensland. Mr Shorten promised to increase scholarships to train more
Leader of the Australian opposition Bill Shorten (centre) and Labor candidate Cathy O'Toole (right), visiting Heatley State Primary School as part of the 2016 election campaign in Queensland. Mr Shorten promised to increase scholarships to train more Aboriginal teachers.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Voters must choose between opposing ideological views held by parties

Within hours of announcing that Australia would go to the polls on July 2, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull jumped on a plane and headed north to begin his campaign in the state of Queensland.

The opposition leader, Mr Bill Shorten, was not far behind. Both the ruling Liberal-National coalition and the Labor opposition started the marathon campaign in Queensland, a state which has numerous battleground seats and could decide the outcome of the election.

Labor holds just six of the state's 30 seats and has little chance of winning the polls announced on Sunday without regaining some of the nine seats it has lost in Queensland since Mr Kevin Rudd, a Queenslander, won the 2007 election.

For his first campaign event, Mr Turnbull, a former investment banker and Internet entrepreneur, went to a fruit market on Monday and helped to load watermelons as he trumpeted his plan to cut taxes for small businesses.

Despite being a self-made multimillionaire, he was quick to note that one of his first jobs was working as a labourer at a fruit market in Sydney. "Passing melons on and off trucks all day certainly built up your arms," he said.

In contrast, Mr Shorten, a former union leader, began his campaign at a public school as he promised to increase scholarships to train more Aboriginal teachers.

The campaign - the longest in almost 50 years - will inevitably see both leaders engage in the usual rounds of baby kissing and wearing hard hats in factories as they focus on Queensland and close marginal seats in the western suburbs of Sydney.

But the election presents what many commentators believe is one of the sharpest ideological divides in years. Mr Turnbull and Mr Shorten have presented vastly different pictures of the type of government the nation needs as it enters a new post-mining boom phase of slowing growth and record-low interest rates. The conservative coalition is emphasising economic discipline, including small business tax cuts and limited spending increases. Labor is opposing proposed tax cuts for high-income earners and pushing for increased spending on health and education.

The gulf has led to accusations from the coalition that Labor is engaging in "class warfare". "Labor are setting themselves up for some kind of class war," Mr Turnbull told ABC Radio last week. "They are arguing that people who earn A$80,000 (S$80,600) a year are rich... Now that's the type of war of envy, the politics of envy, which absolutely stands in the way of aspiration and enterprise and growth."

Mr Shorten has insisted he will "stand up for middle and working-class families across Australia".

Political commentator Laura Tingle said that  voters in this election "face the starkest choice about the nature of their government in decades". "This transformation in our politics goes a lot further than a fiscal obsession: it sets the two sides of politics up to offer very different views of the role of government for the first time in several decades," she wrote in The Australian Financial Review on Monday.

At this stage, opinion polls show that the public is far from making up its mind. Labor and the coalition entered the campaign virtually tied, according to the latest polls on Monday. Mr Turnbull, who ousted Mr Tony Abbott as leader in September last year, and Mr Shorten, who replaced Mr Rudd after the 2013 election, are conducting their first campaigns as leader.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2016, with the headline 'Aussie polls show sharpest divide in years'. Print Edition | Subscribe