CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s prime minister has called for an election on May 21 to be held on issues including Chinese economic coercion, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison advised Governor General David Hurley, as the representative of 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 it has.
He urged voters to stick with a government that has delivered 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 you know that has delivered on its promises 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 placing the centre-left opposition Australian Labor Party in the lead.
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 has ever seen. The year ended with devastating wildfires in southeastern Australia that killed 33 people directly and more than 400 through smoke.
The fires also destroyed more than 3,000 homes and razed 19 million hectares (47 million acres) of farmland and forest during the Southern Hemisphere summer.
Morrison has been widely criticized for taking a secret family vacation to Hawaii at the height of the crisis when his hometown of Sydney was blanketed in toxic smoke.
He cut his vacation short due to public backlash, but was further criticized for his explanation for his absence: “I don’t hold a pipe.”
His government has been criticized for its responses to the fires and has also recorded flooding this year in some of the same areas of southeastern Australia that were leveled two years earlier.
Both the government and the opposition have set a goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Morrison was widely criticized at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November for failing to set more ambitious targets for the end of the decade.
The government aims to cut emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels, while other countries have made stronger commitments.
The Australian 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 harder to contain.
The opposition has criticized the government for the pace of Australia’s vaccine rollout, which has been described as a “walking stroll” because it was months behind schedule. The Australian population is now one of the most vaccinated in the world.
The government has defended its pandemic toll and takes credit for the fact that Australia has the third-lowest death rate among the 38 countries of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation.
While China has imposed official and unofficial trade sanctions against Australia in recent years, the government says Beijing wants Labor to win the election because the party was less likely to resist economic coercion.
Labor takes credit for thwarting the government’s plan in 2014 to sign an extradition treaty with China. Bilateral relations have since deteriorated and the government now warns that Australians risk arbitrary detention if they visit China.
Several experts say the two sides of politics are largely united on national security issues and the government is confusing differences on China.
“The government seeks to create the perception of a difference between itself and the opposition on a critical national security issue, i.e. China, seeking to create the perception of a difference when it does not ‘none exist in practice,’ said Dennis Richardson, a former head of defence, foreign affairs and spy agency Australian Security Intelligence Organization and former Australian ambassador to the United States.
“It’s not in the national interest. It only serves the interests of one country and that’s China,” Richardson added.