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[CANBERRA] Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is seeking another three-year term for his Liberal-National coalition in Australia's election Saturday, telling voters he can steer the world's 12th-largest economy through global headwinds and a fading commodities boom.
More than 15 million Australians are casting ballots, with 150 lower-house seats and 76 spots in the Senate up for grabs. While opinion polls put the government and the opposition Labour party virtually neck and neck, Mr Turnbull is defending a comfortable majority and is the bookmakers' favourite to win. If the result is clear cut, a winner may be declared as early as Saturday night.
The eight-week campaign has been fought primarily over economic issues, with Mr Turnbull, saying his government offers the best hope of stability as the UK voteto leave the European Union continues to buffet markets.
The former investment banker is pledging to cut taxes for small businesses and crack down on union corruption, while Labour leader Bill Shorten, 49, is promising increased funding for health and education.
Mr Turnbull, 61, will be seeking a clear mandate from voters after seizing control of the Liberal Party from unpopular predecessor Tony Abbottin September.
Corporate Australia is demanding long-term reforms, including an overhaul of the tax system, to boost growth, while many voters want him to steer a more socially progressive path that includes tougher action on climate change and allowing same-sex marriage.
"A Turnbull victory looks very likely; he's got a buffer of seats and he's run a pretty disciplined election campaign," said Australian National University political analyst Andrew Hughes.
"A lot of the focus will be on whether his win is comfortable. If he just squeaks home, there will be questions from within his own party whether he is the one to lead them forward."
Australians are weary of political upheaval after the nation churned through six prime ministers in eight years. Still, a conservative rump in the coalition, already unhappy that Mr Turnbull ousted Mr Abbott, is concerned he may try to enforce his more liberal views if he secures a convincing win.
Polls opened at 8 am and close at 6 pm local time across the country. A Fairfax-Ipsos survey conducted June 26-29 has the coalition and Labour deadlocked on 50 per cent. A Newspoll published Saturday gave the coalition a slim lead, at 50.5 per cent to Labor's 49.5 per cent.
Still, betting markets show the government is favoured to win, with online bookmaker Sportsbet offering to return A$1.08 on every successful A$1 bet for the coalition. A Labour win will pay A$8.
Should it be re-elected, the government will do everything in its power "to safeguard Australians and Australian business from the risk of any external shock flowing from Britain's vote," Mr Turnbull told reporters on June 30.
"The aftermath of the Brexit vote is only one of a range of factors driving uncertainty and apprehension in a fragile global economy."
Australia, the world's most China-dependent developed economy, is seeking new drivers of growth after prices for its iron ore and coal exports plunged, cutting government revenue.
While annual growth has accelerated toward its 30-year average of 3.2 per cent and unemployment has fallen to 5.7 per cent, Australians don't feel richer, with wage growth at a rate last seen a quarter century ago and core inflation slowing to the weakest pace on record.
When Mr Turnbull contested the leadership in September, he said Mr Abbott wasn't "capable of providing the economic leadership we need" and pledged "leadership that respects the people's intelligence." Yet since he took over, some voters say he's failed to deliver, both on economic and social issues, including legislating for same-sex marriage.
"Turnbull in particular was very pro same-sex marriage and then he backtracked," said Bernie Smith, 43, a flight attendant who voted for the Greens in the Labour-held Sydney district of Grayndler.
"Labour and the Liberals, I believe, have been too gutless to come up with any change" on the issue, Mr Smith said. The traditional Labour voter said he switched to the Greens on concern that Mr Shorten's pledge to strip away tax breaks for property investors may cause house prices to fall.
Mr Shorten, a former union leader, has attacked Mr Turnbull's government and described it as divided.
"Since Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister, he has disappointed people," he told reporters on June 30, accusing him of leading "a small target government."
Should the government be returned, eyes will turn to the make up of the Senate. Since 2013 a group of independents and micro-parties have held the balance of power, blocking A$13 billion of budget savings and complicating government efforts to rein in a deficit forecast to reach A$37.1 billion (S$37.4 billion) next year.
Despite Mr Turnbull amending voting laws, the new Senate may remain eclectic, with populist firebrands including former soldier Jacqui Lambie, anti-Muslim immigration campaigner Pauline Hanson and controversial broadcaster Derryn Hinch tipped to win upper-house seats.
The Greens, which now hold 10 Senate seats, are likely to remain a significant force, and a new party led by South Australian independent Nick Xenophon is forecast to pick up as many as four.
"The Senate is the great unknown in this election," according to Mr Hughes from the ANU.
"Even if Turnbull's government is returned, it may find his legislative agenda is again frustrated in the upper house."
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