Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has waved the chequered flag to begin the 2022 general election campaign that promises to be more exciting than New Zealand’s first election under the Covid pandemic.
A crisis will usually assist a half-way competent incumbent government, as it did here in 2020, but the health crisis is not prevalent in Australia and Morrison faces headwinds.
When the election is held on May 21, it is likely to be a closer contest than the landslide in New Zealand, and politics in Australia tend to be more vicious both within parties and between parties.
The other reason it could be close is because the alternative government in Australia, is not in a state of chaos, as it was in 2020 in New Zealand.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, has scrubbed himself up for the election. He has had a makeover, lost 18kg and is now virtually level pegging with Morrison in approval ratings in the most frequently cited poll, The Australian newspaper’s Newspoll.
A week ago, Newspoll put Labour ahead on 54 per cent, well ahead of the 46 per cent of the Coalition (of Liberals and Nationals) that has governed Australia since 2013.
But unlike New Zealand, the overall support for a party does not determine who wins elections; it is the number of electorates won. And even with a big swing to Labor, unless it is converted to gains in seats, it will remain in Opposition.
With 151 seats in the House of Representatives (named after people, not places), the magic number is 76 seats. Labor has to make a net gain of eight seats, although when assuming that the new seat of Hawke in Victoria is in the bag for Labor, it has to gain seven.
Scott Morrison is expected to base much of the Liberals’ campaign on certainty versus uncertainty, economic management, and national security and Labor’s lack of policy.
Labor is expected to announce far less policy than it did last election, and will base much of its campaign on cost of living issues and the fact that Albanese is not Morrison.
Morrison is facing major trust issues with a long list of people, mainly people on his own side, who have either described him as a liar or made disparaging comments about him, including a Premier, a Senator, and his deputy Prime Minister, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce.
Both National and Labour will be watching closely to see what works there and what doesn’t.
HOW GOOD IS MORRISON?
Well he has been the first Prime Minister, Liberal or Labor, to go full term since John Howard.
Morrison’s 2019 election win was a deemed a “miracle” because the polls had shown Labor ahead for a long time. He was handed the top job in 2018 after Peter Dutton had mounted an unsuccessful coup against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Morrison went from Treasurer to Prime Minister overnight but was seen as “caretaker” until the 2019 election when Labor would win with Bill Shorten who had held the Labor leadership for two terms. But Morrison campaigned strongly with a daggy-dad appeal and squeaked in. He lived and worked in New Zealand in the late 1990s.
With trust in Morrison now being a big factor, Morrison is likely to place a bigger emphasis on other members of his team, particularly the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and Defence Minister, Peter Dutton.
He supports the Cronulla Sharks in the NRL. He is married to Jenny and they have two daughters.
WHO IS THE ALTERNATIVE PRIME MINISTER?
Anthony Albanese has been an MP for 26 years, and was deputy prime minister in the Kevin Rudd Mark II government. He unsuccessfully stood for the leadership against Bill Shorten in 2013 then won it easily after Labor’s 2019 loss.
He is from Labor’s factional left but has come in for criticism for being too “vanilla” and saying he would govern like Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard.He was raised by a solo mother who initially told him his Italian father had died in a car crash. He found out the truth when he was 14 and later met him and other family members in Italy.
He himself was involved in a serious car crash in January last year. He supports the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the NRL.
His wife, former NSW state politician Carmel Tebbutt, ended their marriage in 2019. They have a son. Albanese now has a girlfriend, Jodie Haydon.
WHAT DIFFERENCE WILL IT MAKE FOR KIWIS?
It is unlikely that New Zealand will become an issue in the election campaign but the Australian Government has a bill, the Migration Amendment (Strengthening the Character Test) Bill 2021 to make it even easier to deport criminals. It reached a Senate second reading last month but Labor is not supporting and it won’t proceed if Labor wins.
The basic law it would amend, allowing the deportation of many New Zealand-born criminals who were raised in Australia, so-called 501s, is not set to change.
Likewise, changes to the unfair treatment of Kiwis in Australia who pay taxes for many services they cannot access, such as National Disability Insurance, is not likely to be a vote winner.
There are about 700,000 New Zealanders in Australia without permanent residence or citizenship but who were allowed to apply for Covid support if required.
Labour in New Zealand will be privately willing a Labor victory in Australia but Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison have a perfectly professional relationship. Either way, Jacinda Ardern will want to make a visit there no later than June.
THE NATIONAL SECURITY AND CHINA FACTOR
The security relationship between New Zealand and Australia has strengthened in the past few years, especially against the backdrop of China expanding its interests into the Pacific, and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
But Labor is as committed as the Coalition to its alliance with the US and says it is also committed to the new strategic agreement Aukus with the US and UK to provide nuclear powered submarines and other high-tech defence equipment.
Labor however is vulnerable to claims it would be soft on China, given the Communist Party’s mouthpiece the Global Times, has a preference for Labor over the Coalition, and Labor does not have as strong a campaigner on security as Defence Minister Peter Dutton.
A small activist group, Advance, has paid for a series of billboards on trucks depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping casting a vote for Labor.
COVID-19 AND THE ECONOMY
Morrison was considered to have led Australia ably through the Covid-19 pandemic with quick support for businesses through Job-keeper payments. This time last year had approval ratings in the 50s compared to Albanese’s 30s. But he was blamed for a slow roll-out of vaccines, much of which was slowed by concerns about its primary vaccine AstraZeneca. He has also not had ultimate control over the Covid response because state premiers have so much power over borders, the health response and vaccine mandates.
But the Covid focus is turning to the economy, the cost of living and debt. The recent Budget forecasts debt to reach $1 trillion in the coming year, and deficits as far as the eye can see. But the reason the Coalition is not vulnerable on it is because few believe it would have been much different under Labor. Unemployment at 4 per cent is the lowest in 50 years.
HOW BIG IS CLIMATE CHANGE?
Climate change policy has been a huge factor in the past five elections. This time both the Coalition and Labor will have a similar commitment to have net-zero carbon emissions by 5050 but there will still be plenty of room to argue about how they get there. And Labor has a more ambitious target to cut emissions by 2030 (43 per cent) than the Liberals (26 to 28 per cent).
The danger for Labor is in states that depend on coal-fired power stations, especially Queensland, where it must win more seats if it is to win power.
One of the big unknown factors is an informal coalition of about 20 “independent” candidates standing on climate change issues and only against Liberal candidates.
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