CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Australia’s prime minister has called elections for May 21 on issues including China’s economic coercion, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday advised Governor General David Hurley, representing Australia’s Head of State Queen Elizabeth II, to set the date for the election.
Morrison’s Conservative coalition is seeking a fourth three-year term. The date is the latest available to him.
He urged voters to stick with a government that has one of the lowest pandemic death rates of any advanced economy, rather than risk the opposition Labor Party.
“This election is a choice between a government that you know and that has delivered and a Labor opposition that you don’t know,” Morrison said.
Morrison led his government to a narrow victory in the last election in 2019, despite opinion polls consistently putting the centre-left opposition in Australia’s Labor Party at the top.
The Liberal Party-led coalition is again behind in most opinion polls, but many analysts are predicting a close result.
The last election took place in the hottest and driest year Australia had ever seen. The year ended with devastating wildfires in south-east Australia that killed 33 people and more than 400 others directly from smoke.
The fires also destroyed more than 3,000 homes and destroyed 19 million hectares of farmland and forests during the summer in the southern hemisphere.
Morrison was widely criticized for taking a secret family vacation to Hawaii at the height of the crisis while his hometown of Sydney was blanketed in toxic smoke.
He cut his leave short due to the public backlash, but was further criticized for explaining his absence: “I’m not holding a hose.”
His government has been criticized for its response to this year’s fires and record floods in some of the same areas of south-east Australia that were devastated two years earlier.
Both the government and the opposition have set a target of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Morrison was widely criticized at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland in November for not setting more ambitious targets for the end of the decade.
The government aims to cut emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels, while other countries have made tougher commitments.
Australia’s Labor Party has pledged to cut emissions by 43% by 2030.
Australia initially managed to contain the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic largely through restrictions on international travel.
But the more contagious Delta and Omicron variants have proven more difficult to contain.
The opposition has criticized the government for the pace of vaccine rollout in Australia, which has been derided as a “ramble” for falling months behind schedule. Australia’s population is now one of the best vaccinated in the world.
The government has defended its pandemic record, crediting Australia with the third-lowest death toll among the 38 Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation countries.
As China has imposed official and unofficial trade sanctions on Australia in recent years, the government argues Beijing wants Labor to win the election because the party is less resilient to economic pressure.
Labor has credit for thwarting the government’s plan to sign an extradition deal with China in 2014. Since then, bilateral relations have deteriorated and the government is now warning that Australians risk arbitrary detention if they visit China.
Several experts say that both sides of the political spectrum are largely in agreement on national security issues, and that the government is settling disagreements with China.
“The government is trying to create a perception of difference between itself and the opposition on a critical national security issue, that is, China, and is trying to create a perception of difference when in practice there is none,” Dennis Richardson said , a former head of Defense, Foreign Affairs and the Australian Security Intelligence Organization spy agency and former Australian Ambassador to the United States.
“It’s not in the national interest. That’s in the interest of one country, and that’s China,” Richardson added.