Australian PM Morrison calls election for May 21; trails in opinion polls

Mr Scott Morrison's Liberal National coalition is currently trailing the opposition Labor Party in opinion polls. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday (April 10) trumpeted the nation’s economic strength as he called a federal election for May 21,  hoping to defy opinion polls that indicate his ruling Liberal-National Coalition is headed for defeat.

Launching the six-week campaign, Mr Morrison said Australia had avoided “nightmare scenarios” experienced by other countries since the pandemic and attempted to paint the opposition Labor party as a risk. He urged voters to stick with his centre-right coalition as Australia grappled with global challenges such as the war in Ukraine and the pandemic.

“It is a choice between an economic recovery that is leading the world, and a Labor opposition that would weaken it,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“We’re not out of the woods yet and Australians know it. There’s still a lot of uncertainty ahead.”

Mr Morrison, who is 53, is seeking to become the first prime minister to win successive elections in almost 20 years, ending a tumultuous period in Australian politics. He took office in 2018 after an internal Liberal party leadership change and went on to win an election in 2019 that he was widely expected to lose.

Still, Mr Morrison’s coalition rules with a narrow one-seat majority in Parliament and faces challenges in this year’s campaign that will be difficult to overcome.

Unlike in 2019, Mr Morrison has experienced a bruising three years that will make it hard to paint himself as a fresh-faced, inoffensive family man. 

Despite the country’s strong economy and relative success in weathering the pandemic, Mr Morrison has been heavily criticised for the initially slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, his handling of deadly bushfires and floods, and his reluctance to adopt ambitious climate change targets. 

He has also faced bickering within the coalition, including venomous claims from fellow MPs who have described him as a liar and a bully.

In an attempt to show he understood some of these public’s frustrations, Mr Morrison conceded on Sunday that the government was “not perfect”. 

A significant difference from the 2019 campaign is that Mr Morrison faces a potentially more formidable opponent in the figure of Anthony Albanese, a 59-year-old veteran Labor MP who is proving to be a wily campaigner. 

As leader of the centre-left Labor party, Mr Albanese has avoided announcing ambitious plans and largely supported Mr Morrison’s major policies, such as big-spending stimulus measures to support jobs during Covid-19 lockdowns and a three-way security pact with the United Kingdom and the United States – Aukus– that includes plans for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

Mr Albanese on Sunday attempted to present himself as a forward-looking leader who could deliver a “better future”. 

Highlighting current concerns in Australia about rising inflation and costs of living expenses, he tried to reassure voters that they could be comfortable electing a Labor government after nine years of coalition rule. He promised to promote renewable energy, to reduce childcare costs and to invest more in universities.

“Australians deserve better,” he told reporters.

“This is our time - our time to seize the opportunities that are before us, our time to create a better future where no one is held back and no one is left behind.”

Australia’s unemployment level of four per cent is the lowest in almost 50 years but wage growth remains slow and inflation is rising. The central bank has signalled that it will soon start lifting record low interest rates, which could rein in the booming property market but dampen the strong economic recovery.

According to the latest Newspoll opinion survey, released on Sunday night, Labor leads the Coalition by 53 to 47 per cent. Mr Morrison leads Mr Albanese as preferred prime minister by 44 to 39 per cent, with the remainder undecided – a slim margin for a sitting prime minister.

Mr Morrison will hope he can confound his doubters and again deliver an upset victory. But the election, as the campaign begins, is Mr Albanese’s to lose.

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