Australia votes in close-fought election

MELBOURNE, Australia – Australia’s election frontrunner Anthony Albanese asked voters flocking to the polls Saturday to give his centre-left party a “crack” at running the country after a decade of conservative rule.

Albanese, the 57-year-old Labor Party leader, urged people to turn away from a “divisive” Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is behind in pre-election polls.

Albanese has pledged to end Australia’s foot dragging on climate change, help people struggling with soaring prices, and to hold a referendum on giving indigenous people an institutional voice in national policy making.

“I feel a sense of momentum,” Albanese said as he visited a polling station in Melbourne, posing for selfies with locals and their dogs.

“Give Labor a crack. We have plans for this country,” Albanese said as election day began, describing the prime minister as “the most divisive I’ve ever seen”.

“We have plans to embrace the opportunities that are there from acting on climate change,” he said.

– ‘Hubris’ –

In a land scarred by ever more ferocious bushfires, floods, and droughts, climate change was on many voters’ minds.

“I grew up in a community that’s been really heavily affected by the fires and the floods over the past five years,” first time voter Jordan Neville said in Melbourne.

“To see something be done about that and stop that happening again would be amazing.”

As long queues formed in many stations, incumbent Morrison accused Albanese of “hubris” in predicting a centre-left Labor win.

“You can’t get ahead of yourself,” the 54-year-old leader said in a last pre-election pitch as he hammered home his message that Labor cannot be trusted to manage the economy.

Voting is compulsory, enforced with a Aus$20 (US$14) fine but also rewarded at many booths that fired up barbecues to offer people a free “democracy sausage”.

The election will decide who controls the House of Representatives, the Senate and who lives in the prime minister’s “Lodge”.

More than seven million people cast early or postal ballots, according to the Australian Electoral Commission, almost half the electorate.

Two final polls put Labor six points ahead of Morrison’s Liberal-led coalition, but with the race narrowing and neither party assured of an outright victory.

– Tough campaigner –

Speaking in Adelaide during a four-state election-eve blitz, Albanese welled up as he reflected on his personal journey — from the son of a single mum living in Sydney public housing to the threshold of the highest office in the land.

“It says a lot about this country,” he said Friday, voice cracking with emotion. “That someone from those beginnings… can stand before you today, hoping to be elected prime minister of this country tomorrow.”

If elected, Albanese notes he would be the first Australian with a non-Anglo or Celtic surname to be prime minister.

But he is up against a tough campaigner in incumbent Morrison, who defied the polls three years ago in what he termed a “miracle” election.

Speaking in Western Australia, Morrison admitted his compatriots go into election day “fatigued and tired” having endured three years of bushfires, droughts, floods and the coronavirus pandemic.

“I understand that frustration,” he said, having pledged to change if re-elected.

– ‘Not up to the job’ –

Morrison has characterised Albanese as a “loose unit” because of his high-profile gaffes, notably forgetting the national jobless rate.

“This is the sort of stuff that prime ministers need to know,” Morrison said in an interview Friday as he campaigned in Western Australia.

“We have seen that he is not up to the job and it’s bigger than him.”

Morrison boasted of new data showing Australia’s unemployment rate fell to a 48-year low of 3.9 percent in April as an “extraordinary achievement” that showed his plan was working.

Both sides are trying to woo voters fretting about the rising cost of living, with annual inflation shooting up to 5.1 percent and wages failing to keep up in real terms.

– ‘Least fair-dinkum’ –

In wealthy suburban areas, many voters are being wooed by a band of more than 20 independent candidates, mostly women, offering conservative policies coupled with strong action on climate change.

Morrison has resisted calls to cut carbon emissions faster by 2030 and supports mining and burning coal into the distant future to boost the economy.

Albanese has also promised action on corruption — after Morrison failed to deliver a promised federal anti-graft watchdog.

He has branded Morrison’s administration the “least open, least fair dinkum government in Australian political history”.

An Ipsos poll released late Thursday and a YouGov/Newspoll released Friday gave Labor a 53-47 percent lead over the coalition on a two-party preferred basis. – AFP / pic by BLOOMBERG