NEW FEDERAL GOVT FOR AUSTRALIA? – LABOR TIPPED TO WIN – AS MORRISON MAY HAVE PUNCHED HIMSELF IN THE FACE WITH HIS FIGHTING ANTI-CHINA RHETORIC – AND TRYING TO APE U.S. AS ITS DEPUTY SHERIFF IN A REGION THAT SCORNS THEM – AT A TIME WHEN ORDINARY AUSSIE VOTERS ARE MORE CONCERNED ABOUT THEIR LIVELIHOODS & ECONOMIC WELLBEING

Voting closes in Australia’s east as election heads for tight finish

  • Survey on election day shows Labor narrowly ahead
  • PM Morrison, opposition leader Albanese vote in Sydney
  • Initial results could be known by Saturday evening

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Voting in Australia’s eastern states closed on Saturday with opinion polls showing the opposition Labor Party narrowly ahead of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative coalition, which has ruled for almost a decade.

However, a strong showing by climate-focussed independents could result in a hung parliament.

Most of Australia’s people live on its east coast, where polling booths at suburban churches, beachside pavilions and outback halls closed at 6 p.m. (0800 GMT). The states of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory, account for 124 of the 151 lower house parliamentary seats up for grabs.

Voting was ongoing in South Australia state and the Northern Territory until 0830 GMT and in Western Australia state until 1000 GMT, by which time details of some early vote counts from the eastern states are expected to be known.

Centre-left Labor had held a decent lead after nine years in opposition, but recent polls showed Morrison’s Liberal-National government narrowing the gap in the final stretch of a six-week campaign.

A Newspoll survey by The Australian newspaper out on election day showed Labor’s lead over the ruling coalition dipping a point to 53-47 on a two-party-preferred basis, where votes for unsuccessful candidates are redistributed to the top two contenders.

Morrison and opposition leader Anthony Albanese cast their votes in Sydney after making whistle-stop tours across marginal seats in the final two days of a campaign dominated by rising living costs, climate change and integrity. read more

“Today, Australians are making a big choice about their future,” Morrison told reporters outside a voting centre. “Australia needs someone who knows how to manage money, knows how to deal with national security interests, knows how to move forward and secure that strong economy.”

Albanese said Australians want a change of government, which he said had nothing to be proud of.

“I’ve put us in a position where at worst we’re competitive today. We’re in the hunt here,” Albanese said about his chances at the polls.

“In the fourth quarter, I want to kick with the wind at my back, and I believe we have the wind at our back,” he said in a reference to Australian Rules football, one of the country’s most popular sports.

As Labor focussed on spiking inflation and sluggish wage growth, Morrison made the country’s lowest unemployment in almost half a century the centrepiece of his campaign’s final hours. REUTERS

INDEPENDENTS’ INFLUENCE

While the economy is a key issue, several “teal independents” are challenging a number of affluent Liberal-held seats, campaigning for action on climate change after some of the worst floods and fires to hit Australia. read more

Three volunteers working for teal independent Monique Ryan, who is running against Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in the long-held Liberal seat of Kooyong in Melbourne, said they joined Ryan’s campaign because they are concerned about the climate for the sake of their children or grandchildren.

“For me, it’s like this election actually feels hopeful,” Charlotte Forwood, a working mother of three adult children, told Reuters.

In the outgoing parliament, the Liberal-National coalition held 76 of the 151 lower house seats, while Labor held 68, with seven minor party and independent members.

Voting is compulsory and initial results should be known by Saturday evening, although the Australian Electoral Commission has flagged a clear winner may not immediately emerge if it is a close contest, due to the time required to count about 3 million postal votes.

More than half of votes had already been cast by Friday evening, with a record 8 million early in-person and postal votes, the commission said.  REUTERS

Fight With China Risks Backfiring on Australian PM in Election

Morrison’s rhetoric is turning off many voters of Chinese descent in marginal seats that could swing Saturday’s vote.

One of them is Chisholm in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, where one in five people are of Chinese descent. Morrison’s center-right Liberal National coalition took the electorate by a margin of just 0.6% three years ago en route to a narrow election win, and he needs to repeat the feat to pull off another come-from-behind victory.

Alan Qu, a 38 year-old real estate agent in Box Hill, voted for Morrison’s coalition back in 2019. But now he’s undecided heading into the election, mainly due to the Australian leader’s ramped-up anti-China rhetoric.

General Views of Melbourne's Suburb Chisholm
Alan Qu
Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

“If you don’t like your boss, you still get a salary,” Qu said, referring to the relationship between Australia and China. “You don’t have to have to tell them, ‘I don’t like you, you’re bad.’”

The dynamics in Chisholm show the difficulty Morrison has faced in turning a key foreign-policy credential into a winning election issue, even as Pew Research found that negative views of China among Australians rose to 78% last year from 57% in 2019. Polling has shown that the rising cost of living is a far bigger concern for voters, with consumer price gains at the highest in two decades.

Another reason is because the opposition Labor party, which has steadily led in the polls, has sought to blunt any advantage for Morrison by adopting a similar China policy — only with softer language aimed at appealing to the ethnic Chinese citizens who make up more than 5% of the population, one of the world’s largest diasporas.

To be sure, Australia’s ethnic Chinese population is incredibly diverse, with thousands coming from Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. Not all are fans of the Communist Party — many immigrants fled after the Chinese military fired on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 — and plenty support Morrison’s strong language against Beijing.

But polling conducted by the Lowy Institute found that support for the government among Australians of Chinese heritage dropped 14 percentage points last year to 28%, faster than its popularity declined among the broader population. 

Changing Teams

Chinese Australians’ support for government has dropped significantly

Source: Lowy Institute

Note: Data reflects responses to question about which political party they personally felt closest to in a survey of Chinese communities in Australia

Seats where Chinese Australians made up more than 10% of the voters could alone decide who is the next prime minister, according to Osmond Chiu, a Sydney-based research fellow at the Per Capita think tank. 

“There’s a real sense there has been a massive shift over the past year,” he said. “That has coincided with this sort of toughening rhetoric and the spectre of the threat of China being raised in an electoral context.”

Tense Relationship

Relations between China and Australia have fallen to new lows since 2018, when Australia became the first country to ban telecoms giant Huawei Technologies Co. from its 5G wireless networks and also passed foreign interference laws in a move widely seen as targeting China. The government recently toughened such rules in universities following the harassment of Hong Kong protesters on Australian campuses.

Ties with Australia’s largest trading partner got even worse during the pandemic. Morrison called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus in 2020, a politically sensitive subject for China, where the outbreak first came to light. In response, Australian exports into China began to face hurdles including investigations, custom delays and high tariffs.

More recently, China’s signing of a security pact with the Solomon Islands sparked a national uproar and spurred Defense Minister Peter Dutton to warn that Australia should prepare for eventual war in the region. Just last Friday, he held a snap press briefing to tell the public that a Chinese surveillance ship had been tracking Australia’s coastline for the past week.

“China’s growing power and influence are a geostrategic fact,” Morrison said in a speech in March. “What we care about is how Beijing uses its strength. There’s no doubt that China has become more assertive, and is using its power in ways that are causing concern to nations across the region and beyond.”

General Views of Melbourne's Suburb Chisholm
Campaign posters outside an early polling station in Chisholm.
Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Rare Unity

Labor has sought to stick closely to the government on its policy towards China, determined not to give Morrison any leverage to accuse it of weakness. Speaking on Friday, shadow foreign minister Penny Wong said China alone was responsible for the deteriorating relations between the two countries.

“To be very clear, an Albanese Labor government would not take a backwards step when it comes to standing up for Australia’s interest, in this relationship or in any other relationship,” she said.

But it’s the government’s fighting talk that has been causing most concern for Chinese Australian voters, and not just in Chisholm. Some other electorates with high such Australian populations are also vulnerable government seats. 

In neighboring Kooyong, where Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is fighting to keep his seat against an independent challenger, more than 11% of the population is ethnically Chinese. A poll last week projected him losing the seat. Up the coastline in New South Wales, the must-win government seats of Bennelong, Reid and Banks all have large Chinese Australian populations. 

“What the Labor party have signaled they would do differently is a matter of tone,” said Natasha Kassam, director of the Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. “They accuse the current government of having employed divisive rhetoric to demonstrate how tough they are on China, and they claim that the government has been using antagonism towards China for domestic political purposes.” – BLOOMBERG

REUTERS / BLOOMBERG

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