Hot topics, but Morrison and Albanese fail to ignite a torpid race
Amid voter misgivings over both main parties, polls give Labor a narrow lead ahead of next week’s federal election
By Elias Visontay
As Australia’s election campaign draws to a close ahead of the 21 May vote, cost of living pressures and the rising prominence of independent pro-climate action candidates have made the future of the country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, increasingly uncertain. Multiple newspapers have released polls pointing to a slight advantage for Anthony Albanese’s Labor opposition over the conservative Coalition comprising the Liberal party under Morrison and the rural-based National party. However, the polls failed to predict Morrison’s narrow win in 2019, and support for both major parties is in decline, leaving several outcomes open, including the prospect of a hung parliament. Morrison’s task is to retain the 76 seats the Coalition currently holds – the minimum required to form government in a parliament of 151 – which would extend Labor’s run of losing elections to four, stretching back to 2013. He has hopes of picking up some Labor marginals, but also faces threats from independents in generally wealthy inner-city seats who are demanding more urgent action on climate. So far, the campaign has been rocky for both leaders. It began shortly after revelations that members of Morrison’s government, including the deputy prime minister and National party leader, Barnaby Joyce, had called him a liar, both publicly and privately. Morrison has since endured sustained criticism from Labor over Australia’s disintegrating relationship with the Solomon Islands after the Pacific nation signed a security pact with Beijing that blindsided Canberra. Last Tuesday, the Reserve Bank of Australia raised its cash rate for the first time since 2010, prompting the country’s four largest banks to immediately raise interest rates,. Alarming figures released last month showed inflation rising at double the pace of wages. Having campaigned for weeks on cost-of-living issues, hoping to reinforce the traditional strength of the Coalition on economic management, Morrison was quick to dissociate the bank’s decision from his policies, blaming overseas events beyond his control. Labor seized on the rate rise, as it unveiled a policy to help lower income Australians break into the investordriven housing market, whereby the government would take a 40% stake in a house to ease mortgage sizes. Albanese, coming out of a week of Covid isolation at his home in Sydney, travelled to Western Australia to officially launch his party’s campaign, and later to Queensland, in a week where he was joined by the premiers of Labor-led states whose popularity surged as a result of tight domestic border controls during the pandemic. Albanese, who has made much of his upbringing as the child of a single mother in Sydney public housing, is a party stalwart from Labor’s left, although far from a radical firebrand. He e has struggled to inject inspiration into Labor’s bor campaign, which has kept its policy offering to a minimum after the ambitious programme of his predecessor, Bill Shorten, was torn down by Morrison at the 2019 election. But the Coalition is fighting on more than one front, thanks to the so-called “teal independents” – candidates running in traditionally safe Liberal party seats on a strong climate action platform, some backed by substantial funds from the Climate 200 organisation. The teal nods both to the traditional Liberal blue and their green credentials. Several seats in affluent areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth appear vulnerable to independents, according to polling, threatening the political career of prominent moderate Liberal MPs, including the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, in Melbourne’s traditionally rock-solid Liberal seat of Kooyong. Rather than shift policy to appeal to moderate Liberals, Morrison has focused on voters in outer metropolitan, regional and mining seats, some former Labor strongholds, others held by the Nationals. Morrison went on the attack last week, criticising the other pillar of the teal independent platform – calls for a robust federal anti-corruption watchdog – as potentially leading to a “public autocracy”. Last Friday, the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was ousted as Liberal leader in 2018 and ultimately replaced by Morrison, said voting for the teal independents could thwart the “capture” of the Liberal party by its conservative wing. Elsewhere, leaders have stumbled over seemingly more straightforward blocks. Albanese was unable to name the unemployment and interest rates on the first day of the campaign, and then struggled to explain Labor’s disability policy. However, the leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, won some kudos for telling a journalist who asked what the obscure wage price index was, to “Google it, mate”. Most bizarre of all was Morrison, who posted an image to his Facebook page earlier this month of curries he had prepared for his family – a tactic he has used to promote his brand as a regular suburban dad. “Strong curry. Strong economy. Stronger future,” the caption read. The image showed an alarmingly pinkish chunk of chicken, triggering an onslaught of negative comments.