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Australian Prime Minister Calls May 21 Election


Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison gestures during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, April 10, 2022.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison called federal elections for May 21 on Sunday, launching a come-from-behind battle to stay in power after three years rocked by floods, bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Morrison's conservative government is struggling to woo Australia's 17 million voters, lagging behind the opposition Labor party in a string of opinion polls despite presiding over a rebounding economy with a 13-year-low jobless rate of 4%.

"This election is about you. No one else. It's about our country, and it's about its future," Morrison said.

"I know Australians have been through a very tough time. I also know that Australia continues to face very tough challenges in the years ahead," he told a news conference in Canberra.

Polls show much of the electorate distrusts the 53-year-old leader, who fashions himself as a typical Australian family man and is unafraid of advertising his Pentecostal Christian faith.

In a punishing run-up to the vote, politicians, including two disaffected members of his own Liberal Party, have accused him of being a bully and an autocrat, one saying he had "no moral compass.”

Aiming to end nine years of Liberal-National Party rule is 59-year-old opposition Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese, a cautious campaigner who is focusing on Morrison's performance in the face of crises.

It is a tactic that appears to be working.

A recent Newspoll survey showed Labor leading the coalition 54% to 46% on a two-party basis.

Morrison and Albanese were in a statistical tie as preferred prime minister for the next three-year term.

Multiple surveys show the cost of living, with gasoline prices notably soaring since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is a key concern ahead of the election, in which voting is compulsory.

In a pre-election spree, the government announced an array of giveaways, including a fuel tax cut and a tax rebate for about half of the adult population.

But extreme weather events blamed on an overheating planet, and the government's response, have also unnerved many Australians.

'Not a race'

Morrison is a strident supporter of Australia's vast fossil fuel industry.

He has vowed to mine and export coal for as long as there are buyers, touted a "gas-fired recovery" from the pandemic, and resisted global calls to cut carbon emissions faster by 2030.

As treasurer in 2017, he famously took a chunk of coal into parliament and told Labor: "This is coal, don't be afraid."

Morrison has been panned, too, over his handling of climate-related disasters in Australia.

During the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, which killed more than 30 people, Morrison took his family on a Christmas holiday to Hawaii.

After cutting his break short, Morrison memorably told reporters he was sure people understood that: "I don't hold a hose, mate, and I don't sit in a control room."

"Morrison's position was virtually untenable as a result of the Hawaii holiday," said Mark Kenny, professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.

But the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic "changed everything," he said, turning people's minds to a new, global crisis.

Morrison rightly injected "vast amounts of money" into the economy, but the vaccine rollout was painfully slow and he "messed up" the distribution of self-administered rapid antigen tests, Kenny said.

More recently, a deadly two-week east coast flooding disaster in late February and early March left residents seething at a perceived lack of government preparation and emergency help.

Morrison has also struggled to win over women voters after his handling of rape allegations made by a female political staffer in government, as well as young voters repelled by his pro-coal stance.

Backed by a climate-change activist fund, more than a dozen women are gaining support as independent, centrist candidates -- many in traditionally conservative seats in the cities.

But few people are ruling out a Morrison win.

"Things can happen that change the dynamic incredibly quickly," said Michele Levine, chief executive of Roy Morgan pollsters.

Morrison has defied the odds before, winning what he described as a "miracle' election in May 2019 despite trailing in most polls.

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