Polls open in climate-dominated Aussie election

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SYDNEY, May 18, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – Polls opened Saturday in Australia’s nail-
biter election, a race that may be the first anywhere decided on climate
policy.

Just under 17 million people are expected to cast their ballots across the
vast island-continent, as final surveys predicted a centre-left Labor
victory.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative Liberals had closed a yawning
gap on the opposition, but differences over climate may prove the difference.

In one Sydney suburb, early rising voters trickled into a beachside surf
club to cast their ballots, as volunteers wearing bright orange “I’m a
climate voter” t-shirts handed out pamphlets.

“I’m worried about the climate and that Australia is not doing enough,” the
volunteer Catherine Willis told AFP.

A season of record floods, wildfires and droughts has brought the issue
front and centre in the campaign.

In rural areas, climate-hit farmers are demanding action. And in several
rich suburbs, eco-minded centre-right independents are running Liberal party
luminaries close.

Labor has pledged ambitious targets for renewable energy, while the
Liberals said they would not risk the coal-fuelled economy’s health to make
the air cleaner.

The Liberal message has been pitched at older and wealthier voters who may
see higher taxes under Labor.

Final polls show the vote is going down to the wire, with Labor ahead
roughly 51-49.

But compulsory voting and a complex system of ranking candidates mean an
upset is possible.

“This will be the closest election we’ve seen in many, many years,”
Morrison predicted while making a final pitch to voters in north Queensland.

Weeks ago, the contest looked like it might be a rout for Labor.

But a final survey by Ipsos Friday showed Morrison’s coalition trailing
Shorten’s Labor 49 to 51 percent, from 48 to 52 percent two weeks ago.

In some battleground seats, the race is even tighter, with the electorate
split 50-50.

“I don’t think anyone… thought this is where the election would be the
day before,” Morrison said.

– Candidates egged –

The campaign has been an often ignominious pitched-battle, with Morrison —
in lock step with Rupert Murdoch’s fiercely conservative media — mounting a
relentlessly negative campaign, warning a Labor government will wreck the
already slowing economy.

Out on the campaign trail, candidates have been egged, abused and a slew
have resigned for racist, sexist and otherwise jaw-dropping social media
posts.

In one Sydney battleground seat, a 62-year-old man was arrested and charged
with thrusting a corkscrew into the stomach of someone putting up campaign
banners on the eve of the election.

Morrison is scraping for his political life, hoping to avoid entering the
history books as one of the shortest-serving prime ministers in Australian
history.

He took office last August after a party room coup that ousted moderate
pro-climate leader Malcolm Turnbull — the latest in a series of political
fratricides that have made Canberra politics look like “Game of Thrones”
meets “The Hunger Games.”

Much of Morrison’s cabinet has resigned or gone into virtual hiding because
of their unpopularity.

If he wins, it would be one of the greatest political comebacks anywhere,
akin to US president Harry Truman’s defeat of Thomas Dewey in 1948.

If Shorten is elected, he would become the sixth prime minister sworn into
office in a decade.

The former union leader has struggled with low personal approval ratings
but has become a more polished campaigner as the election has neared.

Still, his relative lack of charisma was underlined Thursday by the death
of much-loved former prime minister Bob Hawke, an Oxford-educated lovable
rogue, equally at home chugging a pint or debating Keynesian economics.

But the upswelling of sadness about Hawke’s death could remind voters of
less contentious times under Labor.

Shorten’s hopes of grabbing the top job may hinge on results in Queensland
and his home state of Victoria — where Labor’s lead has proved more
resilient and where climate change has been a critical issue.

Should he win, Australia will likely get a vote on becoming a republic and,
as Shorten put it, returning a head of state that Australia has borrowed from
the other side of the world for more than two centuries.

Polls opened at 8:00 am local (2200 GMT) and the first exit polls are
expected around 10 hours later.

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