Melbourne, Australia – Australia, one of the world’s oldest continuing democracies, goes to the polls on Saturday to choose the country’s next parliament and prime minister.
Australians have had six changes of prime minister over the past 12 years – mostly the result of internal party fights – and the incumbent Liberal Coalition of Prime Minister Scott Morrison is hoping tax cuts and the enduring resilience of Australia’s economy will be enough to keep it in office.
The opposition Labor Party under Bill Shorten is betting voters will instead back its promises to improve education and healthcare as well as create a fairer Australia.
“This election, more than any in recent years, is a genuine clash of ideological direction on policy,” said Simon Cowan, research director at the Centre for Independent Studies, a Sydney-based think-tank.
Here’s what you need to know:
Australian elections are always held on a Saturday – this time on May 18. Polling stations will be open between 8am (22:00 GMT Friday) and 6pm (08:00 GMT) and are generally located at schools, churches or other community buildings.
By May 13, some 2.6 million people had cast their ballots at early voting centres in the three weeks leading up to election day.
Australians are eligible to vote once they reach the age of 18, and almost 16.5 million people have enrolled for Saturday’s election.
Voting is compulsory, and those who do not vote are fined.
But registration among indigenous Australians is far lower than the rest of the population – 76.4 percent compared with 96.8 percent.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) started the Indigenous Electoral Participation Program in 2010 with the aim of “closing the gap” in enrolment rates and boosting turnout.
The largest gap is in the Northern Territory where indigenous Australians live in remote areas, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town, accessible only by dusty outback roads or plane.
Australians will choose 150 members of the House of Representatives (the lower house) and some 76 Senate seats (the upper house).
For the lower house, voters must number their choice of candidates. A “1” against a candidate’s name is considered a first preference, and the contender who gets more than 50 percent of the total first preference votes is declared the winner.
If no hopeful gets at least 50 percent in first preference votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the votes are distributed to the remaining contenders based on the second preferences – a process that continues until a candidate reaches the 50 percent mark.
Two camps dominate Australian politics: the centre-right Liberal-National Coalition, and the centre-left Australian Labor Party.
The Coalition, as it is known, has been in government since 2013.
Morrison has been leading the Liberals since August after taking power when the party turned against former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Morrison was previously an immigration minister – where he implemented tough policies on asylum seekers – and a treasurer.
Shorten, a former union leader who has held the education, workplace relations and financial services portfolios in previous Labor governments, has been party leader since 2013.
The left-wing Greens Party remains a third force in Australian politics, despite performing poorly in recent elections.
Pauline Hanson’s far-right One Nation party has gained ground in recent years – in 2017, it won 13.73 percent of the primary vote in state elections in Queensland, Hanson’s home state.
The party has been rocked by scandal in recent weeks, however, including an investigation by Al Jazeera that revealed its attempts to get funding from pro-gun groups in the United States.
The United Australia Party (UAP), established by mining billionaire Clive Palmer and which pledges to “make Australia great” is fielding candidates in all 150 lower house seats, but is most likely to win a Senate seat.
Palmer himself was a member of the lower house between 2013 and 2017, where he gained notoriety as Parliament’s most frequently absent member.
Chris Salisbury, a researcher in Australian politics at the University of Queensland, told Al Jazeera he doubted One Nation and UAP would gain as many votes as they did in previous elections, and “not enough [votes] in any one location to win a lower house seat”.
So-called “micro parties” running for the Senate include the Involuntary Medication Objectors (Vaccination/Fluoride) Party, the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (Hemp) Party and the Pirate Party.
Quirks in the preferences system have allowed the occasional micro-party candidate to enter Parliament, including Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party who became a senator for Victoria in 2014.
“As with all these minor parties, it’s a bit of a mystery how voters will act,” Salisbury said.
Preliminary counting of votes begins immediately at polling stations once they close. The winner for the lower house, which forms the government, will probably be known either by late on Saturday night or the early hours of Sunday morning.
Morrison has continually reiterated that Australia has a “clear choice” between the Coalition’s “proven” economic management and Labor’s “reckless spending”.
“Labor is promising a big spending agenda – with a focus on education, health and climate change, in particular,” said Cowan, of the Centre for Independent Studies.
“The Coalition, by contrast, is more of a party of the status quo, trying to convince voters with arguments about jobs growth, a budget surplus and security in retirement.”
Australia’s annual economic growth rate was 2.3 percent in 2018, and the country’s central bank is mulling cutting interest rates, projecting growth to slow to just 1.7 percent this financial year.
Unlike in previous elections, immigration and asylum policy have not featured prominently.
But with the country’s most recent summer being the hottest on record, climate change and environmental issues may be key to the result. Some 85 percent of the country’s energy still comes from fossil fuels.
Most indicators point to a change in government come May 18.
Newspoll, a poll conducted by The Australian newspaper, showed the Coalition trailing Labor for the 50th consecutive time in March. The government has remained behind since.
“One of the key factors behind Labor’s lead in the polls is that after successive governments trumpeting Australia’s 28 years of continuous economic growth, Australians aren’t feeling the benefits,” said Bennett, of The Australia Institute.
While Shorten is not a hugely popular figure, the audience at several televised leaders’ debates voted him above Morrison.
There is an unspoken norm of bipartisanship in Australian foreign policy and both major parties prioritise a strong relationship with the United States and see China as both a risk and opportunity.
However, a Labor government might bring closer engagement with Southeast Asia.
Penny Wong, who is expected to become Australia’s new foreign minister under Labor, said recently that if elected neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia, the country where she was born, would be the first places she would visit.