Prime minister Scott Morrison, left, and opposition leader Bill Shorten, right, both won their jobs after periods of bitter party infighting
Prime minister Scott Morrison, left, and opposition leader Bill Shorten, right, both won their jobs after periods of bitter party infighting © AP/EPA

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, has called an election for May 18, firing the starting gun on a campaign that will decide whether the Liberal-National coalition will extend its six-year period in government or the Labor party wins power. 

The latest opinion polls and bookmakers have the Labor party as clear favourites to beat the coalition, which would see Australia swear in its seventh prime minister in just over a decade.

Here are five key issues that could decide the result.

1. Leadership

The two main parties go into the campaign with leaders who are not much loved by the public. Mr Morrison, a former marketing executive, became prime minister only in August following the ouster of Malcolm Turnbull during a bitter internal wrangling within the Liberals. He is a social conservative, best known for devising one of the world’s toughest asylum regimes when he was immigration minister. 

He faces off against Bill Shorten, a former union official who has led Labor since internal bloodletting ended the careers of former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Despite playing a role in party infighting that occurred from 2010 to 2013, Mr Shorten is credited with uniting Labor during its six years in opposition. But he remains unpopular with the public, with polls showing he has a net approval rating of minus 14 per cent, compared with Mr Morrison’s 2 per cent. 

2. Early voting

The campaign will last little more than a month but, in reality, parties have little time to sway opinions because a third of voters are likely to cast their ballots early. Voting centres open for pre-polling at least two weeks before election day, which means set-piece campaign events such as leaders’ debates or manifesto launches rarely influence the outcome.

“You can only do so much in a campaign and I think people have already made up their minds up,” said Ian McAllister, a politics professor at the Australian National University in Canberra. He predicts a Labor victory, driven by public dissatisfaction at the internal divisions that have led to the ousting of two sitting prime ministers, Mr Turnbull and his predecessor, Tony Abbott.

3. It’s the economy, stupid

Mr Morrison brought forward the budget to provide a springboard for the campaign, promising voters A$302bn ($216bn) in tax relief over a decade and A$100bn in infrastructure spending. He is betting a stronger economy will bring in the tax revenue required to pay for these sweeteners and forecasts the government will deliver the first budget surplus in 12 years in 2019-20. 

Labor is matching the Liberal-National coalition’s tax cuts but is directing more money to people on lower incomes. It has ambitious, but politically risky, policies to phase out tax breaks for property investors and stock market investors to help fund big spending plans on health and education. It also forecasts a budget surplus next year. 

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4. Climate change

The coalition is deeply split on climate change. The rightwing is an advocate for the coal industry, so much so that Mr Morrison once brought a lump of coal into parliamentary question time to goad Labor. But moderate Liberal MPs worry they risk losing voters, due to heightened awareness of global warming as a drought ravages eastern states and the Great Barrier Reef degrades.

Labor is pushing its green credentials by promising to reduce emissions by 45 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030, and to roll out renewable energy and electric vehicles. “Climate change is about intergenerational fairness, which is a feature of this campaign for Labor,” said Bruce Hawker, a former party adviser. “But it is an idea whose time has come because the drought touches people in rural areas too.” 

5. Border protection and security

The coalition has a history of ramping up fears about refugees during campaigns, most famously in 2001 when John Howard refused permission for a boat carrying asylum seekers to dock in Australia. His hardline approach helped him claw back a poll deficit and win re-election. 

Mr Morrison may try to manufacture a crisis. Last month he slammed Labor’s support for a bill to transfer sick asylum seekers held on South Pacific islands for treatment in Australia, warning that Mr Shorten would allow “those suspected of violence, sexual crimes and abuse, including against children” to walk Australian streets.

But with no asylum boats arriving in Australia and more public scrutiny of politicians’ rhetoric following the attack on Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, it might be counterproductive to attempt to whip up border security fears. “Politicising border security and asylum post-Christchurch would be a dangerous path for the government to follow,” said Sarah Maddison, a politics professor at the University of Melbourne.

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