SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday (April 11) called an election for May 18, clearing the way for a battle that is likely to centre on the economy, wages and climate change.
The election will pit Mr Morrison, the head of the ruling Liberal-National Coalition, against Labor leader Bill Shorten, whose party has long enjoyed a solid lead in opinion surveys and entered the 37-day campaign as the favourite.
The opening shots from both sides on Thursday signalled that the major parties will play to their perceived strengths. The coalition insisted it was the better economic manager, while Labor insisted it would deliver "fairer" wages and services.
Mr Morrison, who has been leader for less than eight months, on Thursday reiterated that voters can "trust" the Liberal-National Coalition to deliver a stronger economy. He called the election just a week after delivering a federal Budget which promised to return a surplus next year - for the first time in more than a decade.
"The choice to be made by Australians on the 18th of May is… who do you trust to deliver that strong economy which your essential services rely on?" he told reporters.
Mr Shorten insisted Labor was committed to a "fairer", more progressive Australia. He pledged to address the country's stagnant wages and to do more to tackle climate change, painting the coalition as "tired" and out of touch.
"Do you want Labor's energy, versus the government's tiredness?" he said. "Labor's focus on the future, versus being stuck in the past?"
Mr Morrison enters the campaign as the firm underdog with opinion surveys showing the ruling coalition consistently trailing Labor since the last election in 2016.
The Liberal-National Coalition has ruled since 2013 but has suffered from infighting that led to the toppling of successive leaders: Tony Abbott in 2015, followed by his successor, Malcolm Turnbull, who was deposed last August. Much of the disunity has stemmed from a failure to agree on climate-change policy, which has resulted in the coalition failing to provide a coherent or consistent plan for cutting carbon emissions.
The most recent Newspoll survey, published on Monday, showed Labor leading the coalition by 52 to 48 per cent. But this was the best result for the coalition since Mr Morrison became leader, suggesting that it had received a bump in support after last week's Budget.
The coalition currently holds just 73 seats in the 151-member Lower House compared with 72 for Labor. The remaining six are either independents or minor party MPs. This means both the coalition and Labor will need to gain seats to ensure a parliamentary majority.
The big issues
Both sides are offering tax cuts, but Labor proposes lower taxes for those on low incomes and extra taxes for those on high-incomes.
Labor proposes to limit tax incentives for property investors which the Liberal-National Coalition says will damage the housing market.
Labor wants tougher action to curb carbon emissions, with a 45 per cent cut on 2005 levels by 2030, compared with the Coalition’s 26 per cent target.
With incomes stagnant, Labor proposes a review to ensure a wage increase which the Coalition says will lead to job cuts.
The Coalition calls Labor’s border policy “soft”, saying Labor’s insistence on allowing offshore refugees to receive medical treatment in Australia will lead to an influx.
Australia has enjoyed a world-record 27-plus years of consecutive economic growth, fuelled by Chinese demand for Australian commodities. But wages have been stagnant and the property market has begun to fall dramatically, especially in Sydney and Melbourne.
Mr Shorten has pledged to lift incomes for those on low pay, saying the election will be "a referendum on wages". He also wants to wind back tax incentives for investors in property and assets - a move that will add billions of dollars to government coffers and has enabled him to promise extra spending on health and education. But the coalition says the move risks further weakening the ailing property market.
A political historian, Dr Frank Bongiorno, from the Australian National University, said the ballot comes amid a slowing economy, describing it as "Australia's first post-GFC (global financial crisis) election". He said voters were increasingly concerned with rising inequality and "what they see as the greed and amorality of big business and big government".
"In line with global developments, for the foreseeable future we are likely to experience lower rates of economic growth than those to which we have been accustomed," he wrote on The Conversation website.
"Australian voters... are concerned about their flat wages and rising cost of living. They demand that governments make the wealthy contribute a fair share."
Mr Morrison, 50, a former Tourism Australia head, has presented himself as an ordinary, unpretentious so-called "daggy dad". Mr Shorten, 51, a former union leader, presents himself as a champion of hard-working families.
Despite his low approval ratings, Mr Shorten has led Labor for six years and - unlike Mr Morrison - is able to portray himself as head of a united "team".
Australia has compulsory voting, meaning that parties tend to pitch their messages at the electoral centre. But the election will ultimately turn on a series of tightly fought seats, where victory can often hinge on local issues and candidates.