Explained: As Australia votes for a new Govt and PM, the issues and candidates in the elections

Australian voters are in polling booths for federal elections on Saturday (May 21) to elect their next Prime Minister and to decide which political party comes to power. They will also have the opportunity to purchase a “democracy sausage”, based on the decades-long tradition of installing sausage stalls outside polling booths.

The ruling Liberal-National coalition and opposition Labor have entered the elections in a race that pollsters have said is too close to call. While Labor has maintained a lead, latest surveys have shown that the Coalition has reduced the gap.

The latest Guardian Essential poll gave Labor a two-point lead in the two-party-preferred “plus” measure with 48% against the Coalition’s 46%. Seven per cent of respondents were undecided. Two weeks ago, Labor was ahead of the incumbent 49% to 45%.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the Liberal party will seek to remain in power, while Anthony Albanese, the Labor Leader of Opposition, will try to upstage him. If Albanese is able to win, he will form the first Labor government in Australia in almost 10 years.

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However, there is a chance that neither will win a majority, and will need to form alliances with smaller parties or independent candidates to form the government.

System of voting

Australia has a preferential system of voting, in which voters rank all candidates on the ballot in the order of their preference. The votes are counted until one candidate gets more than 50% of all votes.

However, if there is no clear winner, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. Election officials then return to the ballots that selected the eliminated candidate as the first choice and see who they picked for their second choice. These votes are then transferred to the remaining candidates and the process continues until one candidate achieves more than half of the votes.

Thus, if a voter’s first preference does not win then their second might.

Election process

The preferential voting system applies to both the House of Representatives (the lower house) and the Senate (upper house). Elections are being held for all 151 seats in the House of Representatives and 40 of the 76 seats in the Senate. Voters will get a green ballot paper for the House, and a white one for the Senate.

To form a majority government, one party needs to win more than half the seats in the House of Representatives. If they are unable to do so, it must receive support from other parties or independent candidates.

The Prime Minister is not directly elected by the voters. Instead, they are chosen by a vote of the members of the government. The Prime Minister can keep their job as long as they can command the support of the majority of the House of Representatives.

In Australia, voting is compulsory for every citizen above the age of 18. Those who fail to vote will be fined $20. Around 17 million, or 96% of eligible voters, have enrolled for the 2022 elections. Almost 6 million Australians have already cast their ballots through postal voting or early in-person voting, Reuters reported this week.

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2019 election results

In the 2019 elections, the Liberal-National Coalition led by Morrison won a third three-year term. The results were surprising, as polls had consistently placed the Coalition behind Labor for three years, and had failed to predict their victory.

Since then, the Coalition has maintained 76 seats in the House of Representatives. Labor holds 68 seats, while the remaining seats are held by minor parties and independents.

To come to power, Labor will need to reach the halfway mark of 76 in the House of 151 — which means it would need to retain its 68 seats and win more from any of the other parties.

The main candidates

While there are a number of minor parties and independent candidates, the two most popular candidates are from the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor Party.

Morrison has been Prime Minister since 2018, after Malcom Turnbull (also of the Liberal Party) stepped down from the post. During the campaign, Morrison has cited his government’s success in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Due to strict border controls, the country had one of the lowest death rates from Covid-19.

The focus of Morrison’s campaign has also been on his government’s management of the economy. Australia is projected to grow by 4.25% this year, an improvement in economic activity from pre-pandemic times. Unemployment is down to 4% in 2022, according to a report in the BBC.

The PM has, however, faced criticism from within his own party. Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has called Morrison “an autocrat, a bully, who has no moral compass”. The PM recently conceded that “he was a bit of a bulldozer”, and said that “as we go into this next period on the other side of this election, I know there are things that are going to have to change with the way I do things.”

Morrison’s main challenger, Labor’s Albanese, has been an MP since 1996, and briefly served as Deputy Prime Minister in 2013.

Albanese, Leader of Opposition since 2019, has historically been a prominent voice in Labor’s left faction. But for this election, he has softened his left-wing image and based his campaign on modest policy proposals, promising to improve the aged care sector and manufacturing industry, and provide cheaper childcare and lessen the gender wage gap.

Issues in the election

Climate change is one of the most prominent concerns for voters, especially after the recent wildfires and floods. Morrison has been criticized at home and abroad for having one of the worst climate targets among G20 leaders. While both major contenders have promised net zero emissions by 2050, both continue to support Australia’s mining industry, a key contributor to emissions.

While Australia’s economy is not doing badly, polls show that rising living costs, especially those of fuel and electricity, are one of the main issues for voters. With wage growth slowing and surging inflation rates across the world, the effects of economic inequality are growing more prominent. Studies by Bloomberg indicate that the top 20% of Australia have more than 90 times the wealth of the bottom 20%.

The women’s vote can play a crucial role in determining who forms the next government. Morrison’s government was drawn into controversy in February 2021 after a number of women accused politicians of rape and sexual misconduct. Thousands of Australians took to the streets to protest against harassment and sexual assault of women.

Morrison’s handling of foreign policy, especially with regard to China, has also been a point of contention. In 2021, he negotiated a critical defense agreement with the US and UK called AUKUS, which was widely viewed as an effort to counter China’s growing military expansionism. However, the agreement was rocked by controversy when Morrison backed out of a $37 billion submarine deal with France in October, leading to a diplomatic falling out with that country.

In April this year, China signed a security patch with the Solomon Islands. This is of particular concern to Australia, not only because it is the Solomon Islands’ biggest aid donor, but also because Chinese warships will now be able to dock on the island. Labor has blamed Morrison for allowing Chinese military expansion in the neighborhood, “the worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific” in 80 years.

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