The devastating drought that has ravaged Australia over the past two years was on Sue Nelson’s mind as she cast her vote ahead of Saturday’s general election.
“Climate is the big issue for me and my two kids,” said the Sydney resident, with the city facing the prospect of water restrictions. “People are seeing a real change in our climate — droughts, cyclones and floods that are threatening food supplies and yet until now there has been so much inaction.”
This week, Australian authorities approved the first bulk import of wheat in more than a decade, and polling has shown that climate change is one of the most important issues in the election.
Inadequate action by the Liberal-National coalition government on the issue is one reason why voters like Ms Nelson are supporting the opposition Labor party. Led by Bill Shorten, a 52-year-old former trade union boss, the party holds a slim lead in polls of 51 per cent over the 49 per cent held by the Liberals, even though he trails far behind Scott Morrison, the prime minister and Liberal leader, in personal approval ratings.
This election follows a turbulent decade in Australian politics, with a series of governments ousting successive prime ministers in a Game of Thrones-style bloodbath. Last year, Malcolm Turnbull became the latest to fall victim to an internal coup when he was replaced by Mr Morrison.
Whoever wins the vote will take over a country anxious about its economy. Australia has experienced 28 years of consecutive growth but slumping house prices and a slowdown in China, Australia’s biggest trading partner, is threatening to put an end to that record.
The Reserve Bank of Australia forecast last week that the economy will expand 2.6 per cent this year, down from the 3.3 per cent it forecast late last year. The IMF expects 2.1 per cent growth.
The chaos within the ruling coalition — which is split between conservative and moderate factions — has disappointed business and hampered its ability to develop a coherent policy agenda, particularly on issues such as energy and climate change. Mr Morrison has instead run a campaign focused on painting the Labor party as a risk to the economy.
In contrast, Mr Shorten, who declined to be interviewed, has been credited with crafting policies that have tapped into voters’ concerns on climate change and inequality. He has announced plans to target a 45 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions on 2005 levels and make half of all new cars sold in the country electric by 2030. Labor has also proposed to spend more on health and education and raise workers’ wages — while promising to balance the budget.
“This election is really important for Australia because for the first time in years there is a clear difference between the parties on policy,” said Ariadne Vromen, professor of political sociology at the University of Sydney.
Nonetheless, a Labor victory would be a remarkable achievement for Mr Shorten, whose image has been damaged by his role in fomenting leadership coups against former Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He has also come under attack from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which controls 60 per cent of Australia’s daily newspaper circulation.
Australian National University’s 2016 election survey found Mr Shorten was evaluated by voters more negatively than any major party leader since it began asking leadership questions in 1993.
Mr Shorten often appears wooden and his delivery of speeches is “to be endured, rather than enjoyed”, according to one former Labor colleague. But he is thought to have performed well in informal gatherings, such as the town hall meetings he has held across the country, and is considered a good campaigner.
“I’m not going to be a messiah,” Mr Shorten said on television last week. “Don’t believe in the ‘authoritarian strong man’ that I’ll do this and everyone will follow. I would say my leadership style is one of the coach. I want to get the best out of the team.”
Mr Shorten on Thursday returned to the same hall to make his final speech to voters, and evoked the memory of a famous pre-election address by ex-Labor leader Gough Whitlam shortly before he became prime minister almost a half century ago. “End the chaos. Vote for change. Vote Labor,” Mr Shorten told his audience.
He may win the election but, as one voter joked as he emerged from the pre-poll booths on Thursday, in the cut-throat world of Australian politics there is no guarantee he can end the chaos.