Betting company Sportsbet is so confident that the Labor opposition will win Australia’s May 18 election that it is paying out punters ahead of the result.

The polls, however, suggest the result will be much closer than the bookmakers believe, meaning incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Liberal-National Coalition could yet beat the odds.

The closely watched Newspoll, for example, has Labor on 51% and the Coalition at 49% in its most recent poll, published on May 14. The Guardian Essential poll has Labor in front 51.5% to 48.5% based on Australia’s two party preferred system of compulsory voting.

Morrison, as to be expected, has continued to talk up his electoral chances as he puts in a final push for votes.

“This will be a close election. That is not something, I think, anyone was writing two months ago, six months ago, eight months ago,” Morrison told the National Press Club in Canberra on Thursday (May 16). “Don’t let anyone tell you that this election is run and done. Don’t let anyone tell you that your vote won’t count, because it will. Every single vote will count.”

Australia's incoming Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at a press conference in Canberra on August 24, 2018. Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at a press conference in Canberra on August 24, 2018. Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan

That anyone could consider a Coalition victory at this point is a testament to Morrison’s campaigning energy and the fickle nature of modern Australian politics. By any measure, Morrison was on course to be a historical footnote when he took over as prime minister when his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull was ousted in a messy intra-coalition coup last August.

Back then, the Coalition was in complete disarray and voter anger spilled over when an independent candidate took the resigning Turnbull’s blue ribbon Liberal seat of Wentworth in a subsequent by-election.

A spate of high profile resignations and defections further rocked the Coalition. Retiring Finance Minister Kelly O’Dwyer perhaps put it best when she told her colleagues that the electorate perceived them as “homophobic, anti-women, climate change deniers.”

In the Newspoll taken immediately after the Turnbull coup, opposition leader Bill Shorten’s Labor Party led the Coalition 56% to 44%.
Morrison has since clawed his way back and with his key lieutenants either in disgrace or heading into retirement, he has had to do almost all of the campaigning himself.

Shorten, on the other hand, has been supported by a high profile and highly visible team of would-be ministers.

Morrison has the incumbent advantage of passing a budget full of electoral sweeteners in April, just before calling the poll. And he has relentlessly preyed on voter fear and insecurity about what would happen if Labor were elected.

Australian Labor Party leader Bill Shorten speaks during the election launch in Brisbane on May 5, 2019. Photo: AFP/Patrick Hamilton

While light on policy himself, Morrison and the Coalition’s name-play message has been that [Bill] Shorten’s proposed tax reform and spending agenda is the “Bill that Australia cannot afford.”

They have also demonized the Greens party, which is expected to win up to 10% of the popular vote, as unhinged left-wingers whose opposition to coal mining would stoke economic ruin. The Coalition has suggested that Labor is hostage to the Greens because they would need its support to pass key legislation.

An earlier Coalition strategy to fight the election on border security and divisive immigration issues stalled in the aftermath of the Christchurch, New Zealand shootings, where a right-wing Australian gunmen killed 50 worshippers at a mosque.

Essentially, however, Morrison’s campaign has sounded negative notes, including a refrain that Labor cannot be trusted to run the economy at a time of slowing growth and an unprecedented slump in the property market.

Labor, in contrast, has laid out a full program of progressive taxation policies, promising higher wages for low paid workers, more spending on health, education and childcare and an agenda to tackle climate change – an issue that Morrison government has tied itself in knots over.

Confusing the two-horse race between the two largest parties has been the ongoing sideshow of smaller parties, the majority of them on the right of politics, who could have an influence on the poll.

Maverick Queensland businessman Clive Palmer has spent a massive A$60 million (US$41.6 million) advertising himself and his United Australia Party. Palmer’s policies are populist, impractical and contradictory and yet he and his candidates could win a sizeable percentage of the vote, particularly in the crucial state of Queensland, and thus hold the balance of power.

An election billboard for United Australia Party leader Clive Palmer in Melbourne. Photo: AFP/Holly Robertson

For this reason, the Coalition has done a controversial deal to exchange preferences with Palmer and claw back some deserting votes.
Labor does not need much of a swing of the status quo to claim government. In the 150-member House of Representatives the Coalition has 73 seats and Labor 69, with the balance made up of Greens and various Independents.

But such is the nature of the poll that some key seats are showing huge swings. Former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for example, is facing a 12% swing against him in his Sydney seat, where he is up against a moderate Liberal Independent supported by left-wing activist group GetUp.

High-profile Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is also staring at defeat in his narrowly held outer Brisbane seat, but the Coalition are also hopeful of winning a number of previously lost seats, particularly from independent candidates.

The campaign, one of the most bitterly fought in years, has highlighted deep fissures in Australian society. Australians are sharply divided on issues such as renewable energy, climate change, immigration, freedom of speech for religious groups and whether the government should intervene to redistribute wealth or leave it to the markets.

Whatever the result of the May 18 election, these divisions will not be easily bridged for the next government and leader.