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Australia Heads to Polls Saturday      05/20 06:06


   CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- Australians will go to the polls on Saturday 
following a six-week campaign that has focused on pandemic-fueled inflation, 
climate change and fears of a Chinese military outpost being established less 
than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off Australia's shore.

   Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative coalition is seeking a rare 
fourth three-year term.

   He began the campaign in April by urging voters to stick with a government 
that delivered one of the lowest pandemic death tolls of any advanced economy 
rather than risk the opposition center-left Labor Party.

   An early election late last year had been widely anticipated with Morrison 
expected to reap the political capital from his government's success in 
containing the spread of COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic.

   But his nickname "ScoMo" was changed by critics to "SloMo" a year ago when 
Australia's vaccine rollout fell months behind schedule.

   Australia has recorded more than double the number of COVID-19 deaths so far 
this year than it did during the first two years of the pandemic. Around 8,000 
people have died with COVID-19 among Australia's population of 26 million. Only 
2,239 died in 2020 and 2021. The more transmissible virus variants have 
tarnished the government's pandemic record.

   Opposition leader Anthony Albanese noted on Friday that he was the first 
candidate with a "non-Anglo Celtic name" to run for prime minister in the 121 
years since the office was created.

   Albanese was brought up in Sydney by a single Irish-Australian mother who 
fell pregnant in 1962 to an Italian during a trip to Europe. She took the 
father's name and lied that they had been married before he died in a car 
accident. Father and son first met in 2009.

   Albanese has recounted his own childhood hardships in advocating Labor 
policies of cheaper child care for low- and middle-income families and better 
nursing home care for the elderly.

   "Part of what I've said during this campaign is: no one held back and no one 
left behind," Albanese said. "No one left behind because Labor will always look 
after the vulnerable and the disadvantaged."

   The government changed voting regulations on Friday to enable thousands of 
people who have recently been infected with COVID-19 to vote by phone.

   Some polling booths would be closed on Saturday because many of the 105,000 
election workers were sick with the virus or flu. Army reservists have been 
asked to fill in, an official said.

   The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have pushed up costs of living and cast 
doubt on the conservatives' boast of being better economic managers than Labor.

   After the annual inflation rate soared to 5.1% in the March quarter, the 
central bank lifted its benchmark interest rate for the first time in more than 
11 years from 0.1% to 0.35%.

   Two weeks after cash rose by a quarter of a percentage point to 6.75% in 
November 2007, Prime Minister John Howard's conservative government was voted 
out of office, ending more than 11 years in power.

   Opposition treasury spokesperson Jim Chalmers described the rate hike this 
month as a "full-blown cost of living crisis on Scott Morrison's watch."

   Labor has also taken aim at the government's foreign policy credentials 
after China and the Solomon Islands confirmed during the election campaign they 
had finalized a bilateral security pact. Labor described it as Australia's 
worst foreign policy failure in the Pacific since World War II.

   Australia already has a security pact with the Solomons and is the 
impoverished South Pacific island nation's most generous provider of foreign 

   Foreign Minister Marise Payne had proposed in November doubling Australian 
aid to the Pacific to 2.88 billion Australian dollars ($2 billion) a year to 
counter China's rising influence, The Australian newspaper reported on Friday, 
citing unnamed sources. But she was refused by her Cabinet's national security 
committee colleagues.

   Morrison declined to confirm or deny the newspaper report because of the 
secrecy surrounding the committee's deliberations.

   Morrison rejected the premise of a question when a reporter asked if he 
would consider doubling Pacific aid to counter Beijing's moves.

   "You're suggesting that if you just double funding in the Pacific then 
somehow the Chinese government doesn't have any influence or won't be 
successful in seeking to coerce or exert its influence in the southwest 
Pacific," he said. "That's your assumption and that assumption doesn't hold."

   Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said that there will be no Chinese 
naval base in his country and China has denied seeking a military foothold in 
the islands.

   Senior government lawmakers have said the timing of the China-Solomons 
agreement during an election campaign is evidence that Beijing was attempting 
to undermine the ruling coalition's prospects for reelection.

   The government maintains that Beijing wants a change of leadership because a 
Labor administration would be less likely to stand up against Chinese economic 

   As well as campaigning against Labor, Morrison's conservative Liberal Party 
is fighting off a new challenge from so-called teal independent candidates to 
key government lawmakers' reelection in party strongholds.

   The teal independents are marketed as a greener shade than the Liberal 
Party's traditional blue color and want stronger government action on reducing 
Australia's greenhouse gas emissions than either the government or Labor are 

   The government aims to reduce Australia's emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 
levels by 2030. Labor has promised a 43% reduction.

   Recent opinion polls have put Labor narrowly ahead of the coalition. But the 
pollsters' credibility has yet to recover since their spectacular failure in 
the 2019 election.

   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.

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