Melbourne, Australia – Australians are heading to the polls to select their next parliament and prime minister, in what has been widely referred to as the climate-change election.
Some 16.5 million Australians are enrolled to vote on Saturday, with more than 4.7 million having already cast ballots in early voting by Friday.
Polling stations will be open between 8am and 6pm local time (22:00 GMT on Friday – 08:00 GMT on Saturday). The winner for the lower house, which forms the government, is expected to be known either by late Saturday or in the early hours of Sunday.
Observers have said it is the most ideological-based election Australia has seen in years, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasising the differences on economic policy between his centre-right Liberal-National Coalition and the “reckless spending” of his main rival, the centre-left Australian Labor Party led by Bill Shorten.
“The major campaign themes have been climate change and the economy, specifically whether it is delivering for people,” said Danielle Wood, programme director at the Grattan Institute, a Melbourne-based think-tank.
“There is a big difference between the major parties on both these areas.”
|Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, and opposition Leader Bill Shorten [Nic Ellis/Reuters]|
According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the 2018-19 summer was the country’s hottest on record, leading to heatwaves, drought and bushfires.
“Climate change is the most important issue right now,” Jordan, a 24-year-old voter at a polling station in Melbourne’s Carlton North, told Al Jazeera.
“I’d like to work towards relying purely on renewables in the next few years.”
Morrison insists it will be a close election. To win a majority in the House of Representatives, either major party will need 77 seats. The Coalition currently holds 73 seats, while Labor has 72.
If no party emerges with a clear majority, they will need to negotiate with the crossbench for support to form a government.
Both main parties are expected to seek the backing on independents, with Labor likely to accommodate any MPs from the left-wing Greens, the country’s traditional third political force.
Online bookmaker Sportsbet is tipping a win for Shorten – paying just 1.14 Australian dollars ($0.78) for Labor to be “sworn in government”. The incumbent Coalition, which has consistently trailed in opinion polls for more than a year, is paying 5.75 Australian dollars ($3.95) if it can pull off a victory.
Speaking to reporters after voting in Melbourne, Shorten said he was “confident that Labor can form a majority government”, adding that his party would deliver an administration “worthy of [the country’s] people … a nation which wants real action on climate change”.
At the primary school where he cast his ballot, Shorten greeted voters and bought a bbq sausage which he said “tasted like the mood for change”.
|The opposition leader votes with his wife, Chloe Shorten, in Melbourne [Max Walden/Al Jazeera]|
Kerry, a school principal, said she was voting Labor for its “commitment to public education, public hospitals, infrastructure and wages”, as well as for put putting Australia “back on the international map in terms of its credibility for its social policies and its climate policy”.
Graham, a retiree, cited Labor’s immigration policies and “looking after” refugees as the reasons he would choose Labor. In March, the ruling Coalition announced it would cap permanent migration at 160,000 for the next four years, lowering it from 190,000.
In the well-healed Melbourne suburb of Toorak, the economy was front and centre for voters.
Jason, who works in finance, told Al Jazeera that “issue number one is tax, so is issue number two and three”.
“I don’t think the government uses our money well so I’d like the tax rate for individuals and income to be as low as possible.”
On Friday, the broadsheet newspapers in the country’s two largest cities – the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne – endorsed Shorten as the best chance to end a “cycle of instability” in Australian politics.
The country has had six changes of prime minister over the past 12 years – mostly the result of internal party fights.
“There is absolutely no question that people are hugely frustrated by the revolving door of prime ministers,” Wood, of the Grattan Institute, said.
“Labor has tried to capitalise on this by campaigning around the government’s chaos and trying to use it to call Scott Morrison’s trustworthiness into question.”
But Wood noted that this has affected both main parties, noting that minor parties could benefit from a “strong protest vote looking for a home”.
Mining billionaire Clive Palmer has boasted $60m for his United Australia Party’s campaign which promises to “make Australia great”.
Palmer’s party could steal votes from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, a far-right, anti-Islam party recently embroiled in scandal, partly as the result of an Al Jazeera investigation which revealed it had tried to garner support from pro-gun groups in the United States.
The left-wing Greens, meanwhile, seem likely to benefit from voters wanting decisive action on climate change – which recent polls have shown is the number one issue for much of the population.
Where it could get interesting
In the lead-up to the vote, Liberal former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton have both been targeted by progressive lobby group GetUp.
Abbott has held his seat of Warringah in Sydney’s affluent Northern Beaches since 1994, has been criticised for his conservative positions on climate change and social policy.
Zali Steggal, a lawyer and former Olympian, is campaigning against Abbott on climate policy and could drive a significant swing against him, positioning herself as an economic conservative.
Meanwhile, the Liberal-held east Melbourne seat of Chisholm will make history, with both major candidates being Chinese Australian women.
Whoever wins – Liberal candidate Gladys Liu or her Labor opponent Jennifer Yang – will represent the country’s first Chinese Australian female member of Parliament.
“Everything’s new, of course, because in China we don’t do this,” Glade, a university student who recently got Australian citizenship, said after voting at Box Hill town hall. “They say Labor is targeting [helping] lower levels of people like students.”
There are some 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage, but there is not currently a Chinese Australian MP in federal parliament.
Ginnie, a healthcare sector worker, said the prospect of having a Chinese Australian woman in parliament would make her “more comfortable. More represented, I guess. It would make it easier to bring out your opinion if there was someone like that.”
The election takes place two days after the death of former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke. On the last day of campaigning, both Morrison and Shorten paid tribute to the late 89-year-old.
Morrison said Hawke had “led and served our country with passion, courage and an intellectual horsepower that made our country stronger”.
Days earlier, Hawke had penned a letter endorsing Shorten’s campaign, stating that the Labor leader had a “track record of bringing workers and business together.”
|A flier for Liberal candidate Gladys Liu in the window of a Chinese restaurant in Box Hill [Max Walden/Al Jazeera]|