CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s embattled prime minister on Sunday officially launched his conservative party’s campaign less than a week before elections, highlighting the nation’s early success in containing the pandemic and its strong economic recovery.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s coalition trails the center-left Labor Party opposition in most opinion polls as the administration seeks a rare fourth three-year term in elections on Saturday.
Morrison focused the party launch on economic management, which has traditionally been regarded as the strength of his conservative Liberal Party.
He described the election as “a choice between a strong economy or a weaker one that only makes your life harder, not better.”
“A choice between a stronger future or a more uncertain one in an already terribly uncertain world,” Morrison added.
The government is counting on voters opting for familiarity rather than change after the turmoil of a series of disasters of almost Biblical proportions since the last election in 2019.
As well as the pandemic, Australians have been battered by unprecedented wildfires, floods, drought, heat waves and a mouse plague.
Morrison’s government was widely praised for keeping Australia’s COVID-19 death toll relatively low in the first two years of the pandemic. But more transmissible variants have overwhelmed defenses and Australia now has one of the world’s highest infection rates.
Australia’s economic recovery from the pandemic had been faster and stronger than the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan, a government minister boasted at the campaign launch.
But rising inflation has made Australians’ cost of living, including housing costs, a prominent election issue.
Morrison announced on Sunday that a reelected government would allow Australians to use their retirement funds to buy a home, an option rejected by government leaders for decades.
The contentious policy could lead to an increase in housing prices, which soared 24% last year and are a significant driver of inflation.
Labor’s campaign spokesperson Jason Clare condemned the policy as “adding fuel to the fire.”
Morrison’s diminished personal popularity since Australia’s vaccine rollout fell months behind schedule last year is increasingly regarded as hampering his government’s reelection chances.
Morrison’s critics say he acknowledged his popularity was a liability to his government last week when he promised to be a more empathetic leader if reelected.
Morrison said the extraordinary challenges of the pandemic had forced him to be “a bit of a bulldozer” as prime minister during his first term.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese responded that “even Scott Morrison is distancing himself from Scott Morrison.”
“This prime minister won’t change, which is why we need to change the government,” Albanese said.
Albanese attended a Labor rally in Brisbane, the same Queensland state city where Morrison launched his party’s campaign.
Queensland is key to the election. The government holds 23 of the 30 seats in the coal-rich state. Labor, which has more ambitious plans to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions, holds only six seats and none outside Brisbane, the state capital and biggest city.
Labor launched its campaign last week in Western Australia, the other major mining state where the government also holds a vast majority of seats. The government holds 11 and Labor five in the iron ore state.
Morrison takes comfort in his narrow victory at the 2019 election against the opinion polls' forecasts.
The split of votes between the government and Labor in 2019 was 51.5% to 48.5% — the mirror opposite of the result that Australia’s five most prominent polls predicted.
An inquiry by Australia’s market and social research industry peak body found that Labor voters were overrepresented in survey samples.
The 2020 study could not determine whether “herding,” a process in which pollsters manipulate results to match others’ results and avoid the damage to credibility of being the only one wrong, played a part in the 2019 failure because the pollsters refused to disclose their raw data.
Rod Mcguirk, The Associated Press