Australians head to the polls on Saturday with the opposition Labor Party, led by Anthony Albanese, hoping to end nine years of Conservative rule.
The Liberal-National coalition government, led by Scott Morrison, is running for election with 75 MPs in the 151-seat House of Representatives, one shy of the majority needed to govern without the support of multiple MPs.
Labor has led opinion polls since the start of the campaign, but the lead has narrowed in the final week of the campaign, and the party is haunted by its failure in the last election, in 2019, when polls incorrectly suggested he would win.
The six-week election campaign has been largely a drudgery of attrition between two uninspiring leaders, but driven by high-profile independent candidates and minor parties contesting government and opposition bids.
Morrison’s Liberal party has come under pressure in once-safe seats downtown, which have been targeted by grassroots campaigns backed by millions of dollars in donations from pressure group Climate 200 and backing, almost exclusively, female candidates.
Independents are coming on a stronger platform for action to tackle the climate crisis, creating a national body to fight corruption and tackling gender inequality, all areas where the government of Morrison is considered weak.
Despite pressure from Independents and Greens to put global warming on the agenda, none of the major parties have committed to strong climate action. The coalition has pledged, after much reluctance from the rural-based National Party, to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, but includes new gas projects in its tech-focused takeover. Three weeks into the campaign, a Nationals senator, Matt Canavan, declared net zero ambition “everything but the screams.”
Labor has presented a modest plan focused on building more efficient transmission lines and cutting industrial emissions, which has been backed by the business lobby as representing at least some steps towards a credible policy.
Among the seats targeted by independent campaigns is Kooyong, the Melbourne city center seat held by Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.
Government MPs in target areas, including Frydenberg, tried to distance themselves from the unpopular Morrison and instead called on former Tory Prime Minister John Howard to campaign hard to try to retain their seats.
If even a few independent candidates succeed, it could result in a hung parliament, the first since 2010. In the upper house, where smaller parties have a better chance of being elected and overall majorities are rare, the Greens hope to win three seats, which would bring the party’s senatorial team to 12.
Morrison has focused his campaign on electorates in outer suburbs and regional towns that have traditionally been held by Labour, in what has been described as an emulation of the ‘red wall’ strategy employed by Boris Johnson in the 2019 UK election .
He shaped his re-election pitch on the government’s record of getting Australia through the Covid-19 pandemic with the economy intact and without significant loss of life in the first two years.
This year, however, Australia has seen one of the highest per capita Covid transmission rates in the world, with 5,633 deaths since the start of 2022, compared to 2,239 in 2020 and 2021 combined. Morrison said in the final week of the campaign that there was no need for further public health action to reverse this trend.
Morrison promised to change the way he governs if re-elected, admitting to being “a bit of a bulldozer”.
Albanese campaigned largely on the platform of not being Scott Morrison. “This government has been here for almost a decade, this prime minister has been in power for four years, and what he’s saying is ‘if you vote for Scott Morrison, I’ll change’… well, if you want change, change the government,” Albanian said.
The Labor leader, who was the government affairs director in the 2010-13 parliament, the most legislatively productive in Australian history despite lacking a Labor majority, said he was a “ builder” of Morrison’s bulldozer.
“A bulldozer destroys things. A bulldozer knocks things over. I’m a builder, that’s what I am. I will build things in this country,” he said.
Albanese suffered from repeated blunders early on, including his inability to name the cash rate (the central bank’s interest rate) or the employment rate on the day the campaign opened, which led to repeated criticism from Morrison and the Murdoch press, particularly Sky News, who he was unaware of the details of the policy.
He contracted Covid two weeks into the campaign and spent a week in solitary confinement.
Both main parties have focused on the cost of living as Australia faces a housing affordability crisis, the first exchange rate hike since 2010 and wages rising by half of the inflation rate.
Labor has promised to support pay rises for low-wage workers, close the gender wage gap, boost manufacturing and introduce a $392 million housing equity package that would see the government to provide a contribution of up to 40% of the purchase price of a new home.
Albanese said he would support a 5.1% increase in the minimum wage, in line with inflation, which would amount to about $1 an hour for minimum wage workers. Morrison called it “incredibly reckless” and said such an increase would “potentially force small businesses out of business.”
“Anthony Albanese is a loose unit on the economy,” Morrison said.
The coalition then announced its own plan to tackle the extreme housing affordability crisis, which would allow Australians to access their superannuation to buy their first home, a move which experts say would increase house prices and reduce the pension savings of millions of Australians.
Neither side has backed an increase in Australia’s unemployment benefits, which are below the poverty line, and they remain in line with Australia’s sweeping policies on asylum seekers.