Two weeks out from Australia’s 21 May election, cost of living pressures and the rising prominence of independent pro-climate action candidates have made the future of the country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, increasingly uncertain.
Just past the halfway stage of the election campaign, multiple newspapers have released polls pointing to a slight advantage for Anthony Albanese’s Labor opposition over the conservative Coalition comprising the Liberal party under Morrison and the rural-based National party.
However, the polls failed to predict Morrison’s narrow win in 2019, and support for both major parties is in decline, leaving several outcomes open, including the prospect of a hung parliament.
Morrison’s task is to retain the 76 seats the Coalition currently holds – the minimum required to form government in a parliament of 151 – which would extend Labor’s run of losing elections to four, stretching back to 2013. He has hopes of picking up some Labor marginals, particularly in New South Wales, but also faces threats from a well organised group of independents in generally wealthy inner-city seats who are demanding more urgent action on climate.
So far, the campaign has been rocky for both leaders.
The campaign began shortly after revelations that members of Morrison’s government, including the deputy prime minister and National party leader, Barnaby Joyce, had called him a liar, both publicly and privately.
Morrison has since endured sustained criticism from Labor over Australia’s disintegrating relationship with the Solomon Islands after the Pacific nation signed a security pact with Beijing that blindsided the Australian government.
On Tuesday, the Reserve Bank of Australia raised its cash rate for the first time since 2010, prompting the country’s four largest banks to immediately raise their interest rates, after alarming figures released the previous week showed inflation rising at double the pace of wages.
Having campaigned for weeks on cost-of-living issues, hoping to reinforce the traditional strength of the Coalition on economic management, Morrison was quick to dissociate the bank’s decision from his policies, blaming overseas events beyond his control.
Labor seized on the rate rise, as it unveiled a policy to help lower income Australians break into the investor-driven housing market, whereby the government would take a 40% stake in a house to ease mortgage sizes.
Albanese, coming out of a week of Covid isolation at his home in Sydney, travelled to Western Australia to officially launch his party’s campaign, and later to Queensland, in a week where he was joined by the premiers of Labor-led states whose popularity surged as a result of tight domestic border controls during the pandemic.
Albanese, who has made much of his upbringing as the child of a single mother in Sydney public housing, is a party stalwart from Labor’s left faction, although far from a radical firebrand. A near-fatal car crash near his home last year made him refocus his life, he says, and he has since made a point of his healthier diet and lifestyle, while acceding to superficial image changes. But he has struggled to inject inspiration into Labor’s campaign, which has kept its policy offering to a minimum after the ambitious program of his predecessor, Bill Shorten, was effectively torn down by Morrison at the 2019 election.
But the Coalition is fighting on more than one front, thanks to the so-called “teal independents” – candidates running in traditionally safe Liberal party seats on a strong climate action platform, some backed by substantial funds from the Climate 200 organisation.Many have adopted the colours pioneered by former winter Olympian Zali Steggall, who ousted the former prime minister Tony Abbott from his Sydney seat of Warringah at the last election, the teal nodding both to the traditional Liberal blue and their green credentials.
Several seats in affluent areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth appear vulnerable to independents, according to polling, threatening the political career of prominent moderate Liberal MPs, including the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, in the traditionally rock-solid Liberal seat of Kooyong, in Melbourne.
Rather than shift policy to appeal to moderate Liberals concerned about climate, Morrison has focused on voters in outer metropolitan, regional and mining seats, some former Labor strongholds, others held by the Nationals.
Morrison went on the attack this week, criticising the other pillar of the teal independent platform – calls for a robust federal anti-corruption watchdog – as potentially leading to a “public autocracy”.
Morrison has also resisted calls to disendorse Katherine Deves, the candidate he hand-picked to challenge the independent Steggall. Deves has been revealed to have made controversial comments about transgender women playing sport, using Holocaust comparisons to make her point. Morrison’s stance again seems likely to further alienate voters in some of the seats being challenged by independents.
Morrison has warned voters that electing these candidates could result in a hung parliament, and that a future minority government would be hampered in its ability to pass legislation without ceding to the independents’ demands.
On Friday, the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was ousted as Liberal leader in 2018 and ultimately replaced by Morrison, said voting for the teal independents could thwart the “capture” of the Liberal party by its conservative wing.
Elsewhere, leaders have stumbled over seemingly more straightforward blocks.
Albanese was unable to name the unemployment and interest rates on the first day of the campaign, and then struggled to explain Labor’s disability policy when pressed by journalists.
The leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, won some kudos for telling a journalist who asked what the obscure wage price index was, to “Google it, mate”.
Most bizarre of all was Morrison, who posted an image to his Facebook page on Sunday night of curries he had prepared for his family – a well-worn tactic he has used to promote his brand as a regular suburban dad spending time with his family.
“Strong curry. Strong economy. Stronger future,” the caption read.
The image showed an extremely pale looking chicken korma, with an alarmingly pinkish chunk of meat, triggering an onslaught of negative comments.
Morrison defending his cooking skills, telling one radio station the photograph was misleading: “People went back for seconds. It was just the way the light bounced off the skin of the chicken.”