CANBERRA: Australia’s prime minister has called for a May 21 election that will revolve around issues such as Chinese economic coercion, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday advised Governor-General David Hurley to set an election date as the representative of Australia’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II.
Morrison’s Conservative coalition is seeking a fourth three-year term. The date is the latest date he can get.
He urged voters to stick with a government with one of the lowest death tolls from the pandemic of any advanced economy, rather than risking against the opposition Labour Party.
“This election is a choice between the government you know and has been running and the Labour opposition you don’t know,” Morrison said.
The Morrison-led government narrowly won the last election in 2019, despite opinion polls consistently putting the centre-left opposition Labor Party in the lead.
The Liberal-led coalition is again trailing in most polls, but many analysts are predicting tight results.
The last election took place in Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. The year ended with devastating wildfires in southeastern Australia that killed 33 people and more than 400 people in the smoke.
The fires also destroyed more than 3,000 homes and leveled 19 million hectares (47 million acres) of farmland and forest during the southern hemisphere summer.
Morrison has been widely criticised for taking a secret holiday to Hawaii with his family at the height of the crisis, while his hometown of Sydney is shrouded in toxic smog.
He shortened his holiday due to public backlash, but his explanation for his absence was further criticized: “I don’t have a water main.”
His government has been criticised for its response to the fires and this year has set records for flooding in some of the same areas of southeastern Australia that were levelled two years ago.
Both the government and the opposition have set targets for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Morrison was widely criticised at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland in November for failing to set more ambitious goals by the end of the century.
The government’s goal is to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels, while other countries have made stricter commitments.
Australia’s Labor Party has pledged to cut emissions by 43 per cent by 2030.
Australia initially managed to contain the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, mainly by restricting international travel.
But the more contagious delta and omicron variants proved harder to control.
The opposition has criticised the government for being too slow to roll out a vaccine in Australia, derided as “going out” because it was months behind schedule. Australia’s population is now one of the most vaccinated countries in the world.
The government has defended its pandemic record and praised Australia for having the third-highest death toll out of 38 OECD countries.
With China imposing official and unofficial trade sanctions against Australia in recent years, the government argues that Beijing wants Labor to win the election because the party was less likely to stand up to economic coercion.
Labor takes credit for thwarting the government’s plan in 2014 to sign an extradition treaty with China. Bilateral relations have since deteriorated, and the government now warns that Australians risk arbitrary detention if they visit China.
Several experts say both sides of politics are largely united on national security issues and that the government in confecting differences on China.
“The government is seeking to create the perception of a difference between it and the opposition on a critical national security issue, that is China, seeking to create the perception of a difference when none in practice exists,” said Dennis Richardson, a former head of Defense, Foreign Affairs and the spy agency Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the former Australian ambassador to the United States.
“That is not in the national interest. That only serves the interests of one country and that is China,” Richardson added.