Australia set to head to the polls in tight election expected

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australians will head to the polls on Saturday after a six-week election campaign that has focused on pandemic-fueled inflation, climate change and fears that a Chinese military outpost will be established less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off the coast of Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Conservative coalition is seeking a rare fourth three-year term in the election.

He started the campaign in April by urging voters to stick with a government that has delivered one of the lowest pandemic death rates of any advanced economy rather than risk the opposition centre-left Labor Party.

A snap election late last year had been widely anticipated, with Morrison set to reap political capital from his government’s success in containing the spread of COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic.

But its ScoMo moniker was changed by critics to SloMo a year ago when Australia’s vaccine rollout fell months behind schedule.

Australia has recorded more than double the number of deaths from COVID-19 so far this year than in the first two years of the pandemic. About 8,000 people have died with COVID-19 among Australia’s population of 26 million. Only 2,239 died in 2020 and 2021. The most transmissible virus variants have tarnished the government’s pandemic record.

On Friday, the government changed voting rules to allow thousands of people recently infected with COVID-19 to vote by phone.

“Making this change so late in the process is not without risk, but we think it is worth it, especially given the sentiment in the community, and that is why we have asked the government to make this change. change and the government accepted,” Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers said. told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Rogers said some voting booths would be closed on Saturday because many of the Election Commission’s 105,000 employees were sick with the virus or the flu. Army reservists were asked to fill in.

The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have driven up the cost of living and cast doubt on the Conservatives’ boast of being better economic managers than Labour.

After the annual inflation rate jumped to 5.1% in the March quarter, the central bank raised its benchmark interest rate for the first time in more than 11 years.

The quarter-percentage-point rise in the cash rate from a record high of 0.1% was the first time the Reserve Bank of Australia had raised interest rates during an election campaign since 2007.

Two weeks after cash rose a quarter of a percentage point to 6.75% in November 2007, the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard was ousted, ending more than 11 years in power.

Opposition Treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers described the rate hike this month as a “full-fledged cost-of-living crisis under the watch of Scott Morrison.”

Labor also took aim at the government’s foreign policy credentials after China and the Solomon Islands confirmed during the election campaign that they had finalized a bilateral security pact.

Labor described the deal as Australia’s worst foreign policy failure in the Pacific since World War II.

Australia already has a bilateral security pact with the Solomons and is the impoverished South Pacific island nation’s most generous foreign aid provider.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has claimed there will be no Chinese naval base in his country and China has denied seeking a military foothold in the islands.

Senior government lawmakers have said the timing of the China-Solomon deal during an election campaign is evidence that Beijing was trying to undermine the ruling coalition’s re-election prospects.

The government argues that Beijing wants a change of government because a Labor administration would be less likely to oppose Chinese economic coercion.

As well as campaigning against Labour, Morrison’s Conservative Liberal Party is battling a new challenge from so-called teal independent candidates to the re-election of key government lawmakers in the party’s stronghold seats.

Teal independents are being marketed as a shade greener than the Liberal Party’s traditional blue color and want stronger government action to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions than the government or Labor are offering.

The government aims to cut Australia’s emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Labor has pledged a 43% reduction.

Recent opinion polls put Labor just ahead of the coalition. But the credibility of the pollsters has not yet been restored since their spectacular failure in the 2019 elections.

The vote split between Government and Labor in 2019 was 51.5% to 48.5% – the opposite mirror to the outcome predicted by Australia’s five most important polls.

A survey by Australia’s leading social and market research industry body found that Labor voters were overrepresented in survey samples.

The 2020 study could not determine whether “bundling”, a process in which pollsters manipulate results to match the results of others and avoid damaging credibility by being the only one wrong, has played a role in the 2019 failure because pollsters refused to release their raw data.

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