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Australian premier sets election for May 18

Country expects to see a bareknuckle campaign focused heavily on climate and the economy

Mr Morrison struggles to bridge a divide between party moderates and nationalist populists.


AUSTRALIA'S prime minister on Thursday called a national election for May 18, firing the starting gun on what promises to be a bareknuckle campaign focused heavily on climate and the economy.

The vote will decide whether the conservative government gets a rare third term in office - and whether embattled incumbant Scott Morrison can beat the odds and hang on to power.

Polls have consistently shown his centre-left Labor opponents with a commanding lead, suggesting a new adminstration led by former union leader Bill Shorten. But Australian elections are often tight affairs, with a couple dozen marginal seats deciding the outcome, and both party leaders have low approval ratings and have struggled to connect with voters.

Mr Morrison took office less than a year ago in a coup by the hard right of his Liberal party and has struggled to bridge a divide between party moderates and nationalist populists. He has tried to paper over these divisions and make sure the campaign focus is squarely on the party's economic record. "We live in the best country in the world," Mr Morrison said making the election announcement in Canberra. "Our future depends on a strong economy."

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For all purposes, campaigning is already well underway and has already been deeply acrimonious. Election ads have been running for weeks, and - like the US - Australian politics has taken on the air of a permanent campaign with the focus on how policies will play with voters as much as how well they work.

Last week, Mr Morrison's minority government released a prospective budget replete with tax cuts designed to woo voters and the first budget surplus in more than a decade. Since then, any opportunity in front of a camera or microphone has been an opportunity to repeat the claim that a high-tax Labor government would destroy jobs and businesses.

In truth, after 27 years of growth, the Australian economy is facing increasing headwinds, and whoever wins power is likely to contend with slower growth, rising unemployment, falling revenues and wobbly housing and commodities markets.

Labor for its part has zeroed in on centrist voters frustrated that they elected a moderate in former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull only for the Liberals to swop horses midstream to the more hardline Mr Morrison.

Mr Shorten has tried to paint his opponents as culturally out of touch and promised the coal-rich country will shift to electric cars and renewable energy.

The environment is not just an issue in the wealthy suburbs. Farms have to contend with record droughts, followed by brutal bushfires, followed by record floods.

But Mr Morrison will be hoping that conservative rural voters, urban voters frustrated with more crowded and more expensive cities and a combative campaign can carry him over the line.

His fate may hinge on the ability of the Liberal party and Australia's powerful conservative media to paint Mr Shorten as untrustworthy.

Minor parties may also play a significant role, thanks to Australia's system of compulsory ranked votes.

A crop of centrist independent women candidates have done well in recent by-elections, while running a message of unapologetic multiculturalism and action on climate change. AFP

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