Sydney, Australia – Polls have opened in the Australian election, with a tight contest expected between the incumbent Liberal-National coalition of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the opposition Labor party under Anthony Albanese.
Labor has led opinion polls throughout the six-week campaign, but the gap has narrowed with Morrison’s coalition making up ground ahead of election day.
Morrison is aiming to become the first Prime Minister to win two elections in a row since John Howard in 2004.
Voting is compulsory in Australia and just over 17.2 million people have enrolled to vote according to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
Record numbers of voters have already cast their ballots at early voting centres or via postal votes, and more than half of the total votes had been cast by Friday evening, according to the commission. Polls close across the country at 6pm, which is 08:00 GMT in Sydney and 10:00 GMT on the west coast. The result could be known as soon as Saturday evening.
Narrowing polls and the emergence of independent candidates have raised the possibility of a hung parliament.
Labor or the Liberal-National coalition require 76 seats in the lower house to form a government, anything less and they would need to negotiate with smaller parties and independents in order to try and form a minority government.
Australia uses a preferential voting system rather than the simple majority employed in countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, and voters rank their candidate choices on the ballot paper.
The campaign has focused heavily on the rising cost of living, with Australia experiencing its highest inflation rate in 21 years, and the central bank raising interest rates for the first time since 2010.
Morrison has argued that his handling of the economy is a major reason for voters to back him again, pointing to record low unemployment rates.
He is also proposing a scheme to allow young people early access to their retirement funds to help them buy their first property.
Concerned for future
Labor, meanwhile, has attacked the government’s economic record, highlighting how wages are not growing fast enough to meet the increased cost of living.
“As a recent grandfather I am concerned about the future generations and the economic policies of the major parties aren’t addressing that,” Brian Silver, a teacher voting in Sydney told Al Jazeera.
— AEC ✏️ (@AusElectoralCom) January 11, 2022
The rising cost of living is filtering into all areas of life, with voters concerned about the impacts on their everyday expenditure.
“Childcare is a key issue for me. I really need it, I need to know it is available but it is just so expensive”, said Lauren, who preferred only to share her first name, outside a polling station in North Sydney.
Australians have also expressed increasing concern about climate change.
The country has seen its effects first-hand, with Morrison’s time in charge dominated by extreme bushfires in 2019-20 and recent major flooding in Queensland and New South Wales.
Many of the independent candidates in the election have campaigned solely on the basis of climate change, offering different solutions to the problem compared with the two major parties.
“Climate change is something we really need to look at, especially getting electric cars into Australia. We need a fast uptake of them and we need charging stations to be created. That is something the government can do,” Tim, who preferred only to share his first name, told Al Jazeera ahead of voting in North Sydney.
A high number of independent candidates are running in traditionally Liberal seats, with high profile and well-funded campaigns raising their profiles.
“I’m voting for the independent here, Kylea Tink”, explained Katie Archer, a voter in North Sydney.
“I really like her policies when it comes to climate change, I think she is really progressive. Whereas Scott Morrison, it just always feels like he is caring for himself and his own back and not putting the population first.”
Attitudes and policies towards Indigenous peoples are also on the agenda at this election, with Aboriginal groups continuing to demand land rights and recognition as the nation’s first people in the constitution.
It is an issue which could also add to the drift away from the two main parties.
“Whilst both Liberal and Labor point fingers at one another over who is doing the least for First Nations people, the minor parties such as The Greens and the newly formed Indigenous Party of Australia are offering more tangible-practical policies and solutions to effect change to our most marginalised and oppressed communities around the country,” said Indigenous activist Lynda-June Coe.
On the eve of election day, a number of high profile Australian newspapers endorsed either Morrison or Albanese.
There was support in the more right-wing and business press for Morrison and his Liberal-National coalition, with both The Australian and The Australian Financial Review calling for the prime minister to be re-elected, with the latter describing him as “Australia’s best bet”.
Meanwhile, The Age newspaper, based in the second biggest city of Melbourne, gave its backing to Labor in an editorial titled; “For integrity’s sake, Australia needs a change of government.”
The Sydney Morning Herald, its sister publication, also backed Albanese, saying that ”on balance, the nation needs a change”.