SYDNEY — Australians were voting in a national election on Saturday, with opinion polls showing the opposition Labor Party narrowly ahead of the ruling conservative coalition although a strong showing by climate-focussed independents could mean a hung parliament.
Center-left Labor held a decent lead going into the campaign after nine years in opposition, but recent polls showed Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National government narrowing the gap in the final stretch of a tough, six-week campaign.
A Newspoll survey by The Australian newspaper out on election day showed Labor’s lead dipping a point to 53-47 on a two-party-preferred basis against the ruling coalition, largely in line with other election polls.
In-person voting at polling booths in suburban schools, beachside pavilions and outback halls will end at 6 pm (0800 GMT).
Morrison and opposition leader Anthony Albanese cast their votes in Sydney late in the morning after making whistle-stop tours across marginal seats in the final two days of a campaign dominated by rising living costs, climate change and integrity.
“Today, Australians are making a big choice about their future,” Morrison told reporters outside the voting center. “Australia needs someone who knows how to manage money, knows how to deal with national security interests, knows how to move forward and secure that strong economy.”
Albanese said Australians want a change of government, which he said had nothing “to be proud of.”
“I’ve put us in a position where at worst we’re competitive today. We’re in the hunt here,” Albanese said about his chances at the polls.
“In the fourth quarter, I want to kick with the wind at my back, and I believe we have the wind at our back,” he said in a reference to Australian Rules football, one of the country’s most popular sports.
As Labor focussed on spiking inflation and sluggish wage growth, Morrison made the country’s lowest unemployment in almost half a century the centerpiece of his campaign’s final hours. Inflation has risen twice as fast as wages, keeping real income in the red.
While the economy is a key issue, several “teal independents” are challenging key Liberal-held seats, campaigning for action on climate change after some of the worst floods and fires to hit Australia.
Three volunteers working for teal independent Monique Ryan, who is running against Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in the long-held Liberal seat of Kooyong in Melbourne, said they joined Ryan’s campaign because they are concerned about the climate for the sake of their children or grandchildren.
“For me, it’s like this election actually feels hopeful,” Charlotte Forwood, a working mother of three adult children, told Reuters.
In the outgoing parliament, the Liberal-National coalition held 76 of the 151 lower house seats, while Labor held 68, with seven minor party and independent members.
Voting is compulsory and initial results should be known by Saturday evening, although the Australian Electoral Commission has flagged a clear winner may not immediately emerge if it is a close contest, due to the time required to count about 3 million postal votes.
More than half of votes had already been cast by Friday evening, with a record 8 million early in-person and postal votes, the commission said.
A time difference of two hours between the east and west coasts means voting centers in Western Australia will still be open as the initial counts start coming from the populous east coast states, which have 124 of the lower house’s 151 seats.
(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney and Sonali Paul in Melbourne; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Richard Pullin and William Mallard)