Australia elections: voters choose between Morrison and Albanian

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SYDNEY – Australians went to polls on Saturday for a stark prime ministerial choice between the combative conservative incumbent and a liberal promising sunnier style.

Polls suggest Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s belligerent approach to governance has exhausted Australians and hampered his Liberal-National coalition as it aims to take a decade to power. Morrison, who took office in 2018, recently admitted that he had misled some. He compared himself to a bulldozer.

His opponent, Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese, has described himself as a “builder” who will raise wages and increase opportunities. But after an early stumble, it was unclear if he had built up enough momentum to oust his sharp-elbowed rival.

“I don’t think Albanians are enthusiastically embraced,” said Paul Strangio, a political historian at Monash University. “But he has been able to convince the electorate that he poses no threat, that he represents safe, cautious change and is therefore an acceptable alternative.”

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The election will likely be close, analysts say, and could end up in a pending parliament, in which neither major party wins a majority and must try independent or minor party candidates to form a government.

All 151 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs. The coalition currently has a majority of one seat in the House of Representatives. Labor must win seven seats to form a government. Forty of the 76 seats in the Senate, the Senate, are also eligible.

The match comes at a tense moment Down Under. The land of “no worries” has become, well, concerned. Australians, normally one of the most optimistic people in the world, are increasingly dissatisfied with their lives and concerned about their future, recent polls.

The world’s 13th largest economy is doing well, as Morrison’s cheery announcement this week that unemployment had fallen to its lowest level in half a century. But the equally strong inflation means that many Australians earn less by the day.

Australia has one of the highest rates of coronavirus infections per capita in the world. So many people are getting sick that, on the eve of the election, the government has decided to expand telephone voting for those in isolation. But the pandemic is barely mentioned in the campaign.

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Mark Kenny, a professor of politics at the Australian National University, described the prevailing mood as: “tiredness, uncertainty, a little fear.”

“Things like an increasingly assertive China, the war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis,” he said. Morrison “has tried to take these things and wrap them all in an overall atmosphere of uncertainty that will only increase if you change government.”

But those warnings against change don’t seem to be gaining traction. Polls have consistently shown that Labor has a head start in the election.

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A year ago, Morrison, 54, looked to be on his way to reelection thanks to Australia’s early success in keeping the coronavirus out. But a slow vaccine rollout and outbreaks of the delta and omicron variants renewed criticism of its crisis management — a topic that first flared up when Morrison went on vacation amid devastating wildfires in 2019 and 2020.

When asked about his absence, his response — “I’m not holding a snake, mate” — sparked criticism that Morrison acts slow, but is quick to dodge blame. Those complaints resurfaced in March, when the prime minister waited more than a week to declare a national emergency over historic flooding. When he visited a hard-hit city, the trip was short, too late and he managed to avoid protesters.

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The prime minister has also faced credibility issues. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron accused Morrison of lying about a scrapped submarine deal. Then came a spate of attacks from within the coalition, including leaked text messages describing him as a “terrible person” and “complete psychopath”. The friendly fire appears to have pierced his personality like a straight-shooting suburban dad, analysts said.

Morrison’s mistrust has become a tangible theme in this election campaign, Strangio said.

Morrison’s deputy, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, this month tried to defend the prime minister by comparing him to a dentist.

“You don’t have to like your dentist,” Joyce said. “You just have to believe that they are competent. Because when they have that drill in your mouth, you want to make sure they hit the right tooth. You don’t want it through your tongue or cheek.”

Still, Joyce’s own leaked lyrics showed him calling Morrison “a hypocrite and a liar.”

ScoMo, as the Prime Minister is known here, is a former marketing executive who defied the polls three years ago by fomenting fear over Labour’s then ambitious agenda.

“He’s incredibly good at creating images and using words to achieve his political goals,” said Sean Kelly, a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and a former Labor adviser who wrote a book on Morrison. “What’s happened in the last three years is that people are starting to see through that.”

Like Joe Biden in the 2020 US election, Albanian, 59, seems pleased the election is a referendum on his divisive opponent, Strangio said. And like Biden, he has emphasized empathy and unity.

“He’s a suitable replacement for Morrison,” Strangio said. “Albanian presents himself as someone who is persistent, who will act, who will take responsibility.”

The Labor leader has been running a small-scale campaign, pulling back some of his party’s more divisive policies – such as cutting carbon emissions – and eschewing others to avoid a repeat of Labor’s shock loss in 2019 . That has led to accusations that Albo, as he is called, lacks ambition. But Morrison also has little to aim for.

“Morrison always defines himself in front of his opponent,” Kelly said. Albanian’s strategy left the prime minister with “nothing to oppose, nothing to wage a campaign of terror against.”

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But the approached also posed a risk to Albanian, who started the race as the much lesser-known candidate and struggled to introduce himself to voters.

Like Morrison, Albanian spent most of the six-week campaign talking about the economy. He stumbled upon an early question about unemployment, but slowly seemed to find his feet — and his voice. In recent weeks, Albanian has called for a $1 hike to the minimum wage — a move Morrison says would hurt small business owners.

The election is unlikely to change Australia’s close relationship with the United States, said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. Washington sees Canberra as an important ally in the fight against China. Last year’s AUKUS agreement — a milestone for the United States and the United Kingdom to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines — underlined the alliance. Albanian supports the agreement. When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Australia in February, he made it a point to visit both Morrison and the opposition leader.

After suggesting a few weeks ago that he would change his “bulldozer” ways, Morrison appeared to be coming back on the eve of the election. When asked what he would change, the prime minister refused to answer and reprimanded the reporter.

“You sound like a bulldozer,” he said.

Frances Vinall in Melbourne contributed to this report.

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