The opposition Labor Party is expected to win Saturday’s election, with climate change emerging as a key issue.
Melbourne, Australia – Early results in Australia’s climate-dominated general election indicate a close fight, with the ruling Liberal-National coalition outperforming exit polls that predicted a Labor victory.
The ruling coalition of conservatives and the opposition Labor Party were neck-and-neck, according to the Australian Electoral Commission projections, with many battlegrounds yet to declare.
A Nine-Galaxy poll earlier on Saturday showed the Labor winning as many as 82 seats in the 151-member House of Representatives, beating the governing Liberal coalition.
The winner for the lower house, which forms the government, is expected to be known either by late Saturday or in the early hours of Sunday.
To win a majority in the House of Representatives, either major party will need 77 seats. The Coalition currently holds 73 seats, while Labor has 72.
Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, infamous for once calling the science behind climate change “crap”, became the first big scalp in the election.
Abbott, who was prime minister from 2013 to 2015, was one of the most vocal climate sceptics in parliament and had held his seat of Warringah in Sydney’s northern suburbs for a quarter of a century.
Zali Steggal, a lawyer and former Olympian, defeated Abbott.
Observers have said it is the most ideological-based election Australia has seen in years, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasising the differences on economic policy between his centre-right Liberal-National Coalition and the “reckless spending” of his main rival, the centre-left Australian Labor Party led by Bill Shorten.
“The major campaign themes have been climate change and the economy, specifically whether it is delivering for people,” said Danielle Wood, programme director at the Grattan Institute, a Melbourne-based think-tank.
“There is a big difference between the major parties on both these areas.”
According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the 2018-19 summer was the country’s hottest on record, leading to heat waves, drought and bushfires.
“Climate change is the most important issue right now,” Jordan, a 24-year-old voter at a polling station in Melbourne’s Carlton North, told Al Jazeera.
“I’d like to work towards relying purely on renewables in the next few years.”
Both main parties are expected to seek the backing of independents, with Labor likely to accommodate any MPs from the left-wing Greens, the country’s traditional third political force.
Online bookmaker Sportsbet is tipping a win for Shorten – paying just 1.14 Australian dollars ($0.78) for Labor to be “sworn in government”. The incumbent Coalition, which has consistently trailed in opinion polls for more than a year, is paying 5.75 Australian dollars ($3.95) if it can pull off a victory.
Speaking to reporters after voting in Melbourne, Shorten said he was “confident that Labor can form a majority government”, adding that his party would deliver an administration “worthy of [the country’s] people … a nation which wants real action on climate change”.
At the primary school where he cast his ballot, Shorten greeted voters and bought a bbq sausage which he said, “tasted like the mood for change”.
For his part, Morrison asked Australians to back his party.
“It’s been a great honour and privilege to go through the course of this campaign,” he told reporters in Sydney.
“Australians know very full well what it is we are saying in terms of keeping our economy strong, keeping our budget under control, investing in the services that Australians rely on, keeping Australians safe and secure, ensuring we create one and a quarter million new jobs.”
Kerry, a school principal, said she was voting Labor for its “commitment to public education, public hospitals, infrastructure and wages”, as well as for put putting Australia “back on the international map in terms of its credibility for its social policies and its climate policy”.
Graham, a retiree, cited Labor’s immigration policies and “looking after” refugees as the reasons he would choose Labor. In March, the ruling Coalition announced it would cap permanent migration at 160,000 for the next four years, lowering it from 190,000.
In the well-heeled Melbourne suburb of Toorak, the economy was front and centre for voters.
Jason, who works in finance, told Al Jazeera that “issue number one is tax, so is issue number two and three”.
“I don’t think the government uses our money well so I’d like the tax rate for individuals and income to be as low as possible.”
On Friday, the broadsheet newspapers in the country’s two largest cities – the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne – endorsed Shorten as the best chance to end a “cycle of instability” in Australian politics.
The country has had six changes of prime minister over the past 12 years – mostly the result of internal party fights.
“There is absolutely no question that people are hugely frustrated by the revolving door of prime ministers,” Wood, of the Grattan Institute, said.
“Labor has tried to capitalise on this by campaigning around the government’s chaos and trying to use it to call Scott Morrison’s trustworthiness into question.”
But Wood noted that this has affected both main parties, noting that minor parties could benefit from a “strong protest vote looking for a home”.
Mining billionaire Clive Palmer has boasted $60m for his United Australia Party’s campaign which promises to “make Australia great”.
Palmer’s party could steal votes from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, a far-right, anti-Islam party recently embroiled in scandal, partly as the result of an Al Jazeera investigation which revealed it had tried to garner support from pro-gun groups in the United States.
The left-wing Greens, meanwhile, seem likely to benefit from voters wanting decisive action on climate change – which recent polls have shown is the number one issue for much of the population.
The Liberal-held east Melbourne seat of Chisholm will make history, with both major candidates being Chinese Australian women.
Whoever wins – Liberal candidate Gladys Liu or her Labor opponent Jennifer Yang – will represent the country’s first Chinese Australian female member of Parliament.
“Everything’s new, of course, because in China we don’t do this,” Glade, a university student who recently got Australian citizenship, said after voting at Box Hill town hall. “They say Labor is targeting [helping] lower levels of people like students.”
There are some 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage, but there is not currently a Chinese Australian MP in federal parliament.
Ginnie, a healthcare sector worker, said the prospect of having a Chinese Australian woman in parliament would make her “more comfortable. More represented, I guess. It would make it easier to bring out your opinion if there was someone like that.”
The election takes place two days after the death of former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke. On the last day of campaigning, both Morrison and Shorten paid tribute to the late 89-year-old.
Morrison said Hawke had “led and served our country with passion, courage and an intellectual horsepower that made our country stronger”.
Days earlier, Hawke had penned a letter endorsing Shorten’s campaign, stating that the Labor leader had a “track record of bringing workers and business together”.