SYDNEY (AFP, REUTERS) - Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday (April 11) called a national election for May 18, firing the starting gun on a campaign set to focus heavily on climate and the economy.
“We live in the best country in the world,” Mr Morrison said making his announcement, arguing “our future depends on a strong economy”. The announcement officially kicks off a campaign to decide whether the conservative government gets a rare third term in office – and whether Mr Morrison can beat the odds and hang on to power.
Polls have consistently shown that his opponents in the centre-left Labor party hold a commanding lead, pointing to a new government led by former union leader Bill Shorten.
But Australian elections are often tight affairs, with a couple of dozen marginal seats deciding the outcome. And both party leaders have low approval ratings.
For all purposes, campaigning is already well underway and has already been deeply acrimonious.
Election ads have been running for weeks, and – like the United States – Australian politics has taken on the air of a permanent campaign, with the focus on how policies will play with voters as much as how well they work.
PREPARING FOR BATTLE
Until now, the two parties have been trying to shape the terrain the election will be fought on, with Mr Morrison – who took office less than a year ago in a party coup – trying to put the focus squarely on the economy.
On the eve of the election announcement, Mr Morrison posted a slickly produced video of him and his family, urging voters to keep on the current track.
“The real question is what country do you want to live in for the next 10 years,” he said.
Last week, he released a budget replete with tax cuts designed to woo voters and a budget surplus projected for the first time in more than a decade.
Since then, any opportunity in front of a camera or microphone is an opportunity to repeat the claim that a Labor government would destroy jobs and businesses.
In truth, after 27 years of growth, the Australian economy is facing increasing headwinds, and whoever wins power is likely to contend with a less favourable outlook.
Labor for its part has zeroed in on centrist voters frustrated that they elected a moderate in former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull only for the Liberals to swap horses midstream to the more hardline
Mr Morrison. They have tried to paint Mr Morrison as a hardline friend of the wealthy and culturally out of touch, while promising the coal-rich country will shift to electric cars and renewable energy.
“We can manage the economy in the interests of working- and middle-class people,” Mr Shorten told a news conference he called in a suburban backyard in the southern city of Melbourne. “When everyday Australians are getting a fair go, this economy hums.”
Asked for his response to Labor’s campaign, Mr Morrison replied: “I believe in a fair go for those who have a go.”
The campaign will run for five weeks but the major parties are set to suspend their campaigns on the Easter public holidays and Anzac Day on April 25, a war remembrance day in Australia and New Zealand.
The environment is not just an issue in the wealthy suburbs.
Farms – always hard to run on the country’s difficult soil and unforgiving climate – now have to contend with record droughts, followed by brutal bushfires and record floods.
The 50-year-old prime minister’s policies on climate change and immigration are deeply unpopular, but coalition partners and hardliners within his party have forestalled any shift to the centre.
But Mr Morrison will be hoping that conservative rural voters, urban voters frustrated with more crowded and more expensive cities and a fiercely negative campaign can carry him over the line.