Canberra, Australia (AP) – Australia’s prime minister has called for a May election to be fought over issues including Chinese economic coercion, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday advised Governor-General David Hurley to set a date for an election as the representative of Australia’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II.
Morrison will announce later on Sunday whether Australia will vote on May 14 or May 21.
Morrison’s conservative coalition is seeking a fourth three-year term.
Morrison led his government to a narrow victory in the last election in 2019, despite opinion polls consistently putting the centre-left opposition Australian Labor Party ahead.
The Liberal Party-led coalition is again behind in most opinion polls, but many analysts have predicted a tighter result.
The last election took place in Australia’s hottest and driest year ever. The year ended with devastating wildfires in the south-east of Australia, killing 33 people and more than 400 people directly through the smoke.
Fires destroyed more than 3,000 homes and destroyed 19 million hectares (47 million acres) of farmland and forests during the Southern Hemisphere summer.
Morrison was widely criticized for taking a secret family vacation to Hawaii at the height of the crisis, while his hometown of Sydney was engulfed in toxic fumes.
He shortened his leave due to public backlash, but was further criticized over his explanation for his absence: “I don’t have a hose.”
His government has been criticized for its response to the fires and this year set a record flooding in some of Australia’s southeast regions that were devastated two years earlier.
Both the government and the opposition have set a target of net zero carbon gas emissions by 2050.
Morrison was widely criticized in November at the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, for failing to set more ambitious targets for the end of the decade.
The government aims to emit 26% to 28% below 2005 levels, while other countries have made stricter commitments.
The Australian Labor Party has promised to reduce emissions by 43 percent by 2030.
Australia was initially successful in controlling the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic largely through restrictions on international travel.
But the more infectious delta and omicron forms have proved more difficult to contain.
The opposition criticized the government over the pace of Australia’s vaccine rollout, which was ridiculed as a “walk” as it fell months behind schedule. Australia’s population is now one of the most vaccinated in the world.
The government has defended its pandemic record and takes credit for Australia having the third-lowest death toll among the 38 Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation countries.
With China imposing official and informal trade sanctions against Australia in recent years, the government argues that Beijing wants Labor to win the election because the party was less likely to stand up to economic coercion.
Labor takes credit for foiling the government’s plan to sign an extradition treaty with China in 2014. Bilateral relations have deteriorated since then, and the government has now warned that Australians risk arbitrary detention if they travel to China.
Many experts say the two sides of politics are largely united on issues of national security and the government is working to resolve differences over China.
“The government is trying to create a perception of difference between the opposition and the opposition on an important national security issue, that is, China, is trying to create a perception of a difference,” said former premier Dennis Richardson. Defense, Foreign Affairs and Espionage Agency Australian Security Intelligence Organization and former Australian Ambassador to the United States.
“It is not in the national interest,” he said. It only serves the interests of one country and that is China,” Richardson said.