By Tom Westbrook and Wayne Cole
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australians will go to the polls in a general election on May 18, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday, firing the starting gun on a campaign expected to be fought over taxation, climate change and inequality.
Morrison led his confident pitch to voters with his economic credentials, but his conservative coalition governs in minority and must win seats to hold power. However, opinion polls put the opposition Labor party well ahead.
“It’s an enormous mountain to climb,” said political science professor Paul Williams from Griffith University in Brisbane.
“If he were to pull this off it would be one of the greatest comebacks in political history,” he said.
Morrison, whose government has been in power for six years under three prime ministers, has framed the election as a referendum on its record of managing Australia’s finances.
“So the choice to be made by Australians on the 18th of May is like it always is at every election, and that is: who do you trust to deliver that strong economy which your essential services rely on?” he told reporters in Canberra.
“You will have a choice between a government that is lowering taxes … or Bill Shorten’s Labor party that will impose higher taxes that will weigh down our economy,” Morrison said, referring to Labor’s leader.
His pitch comes just as the economy shows signs of beginning to slow. Consumer spending has weakened as home prices fall after a prolonged property boom and high debt levels weigh on sentiment.
Financial markets are fully pricing in the probability of at least one interest rate cut later this year.
A pre-election budget last week included tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners and record spending on health and education, while promising the first budget surplus in more than a decade.
Opinion polls show the coalition government, consisting of Morrison’s Liberals and the rural-focused Nationals party, is headed for a resounding defeat by centre-left Labor unless it can alter the current trajectory.
Labor promised to match the government’s tax cuts for middle-income earners and also pledged bigger concessions for lower-paid workers.
Shorten said in a video posted to Twitter on Tuesday the party would raise wages and pay for investments in healthcare and renewable energy by taxing multinational companies and banks.
It will fund the income tax cuts by curbing capital gains tax discounts and scrapping a favourable tax scheme for multiple property owners called negative gearing, the party said.
This is Morrison’s first general election as coalition leader since he replaced former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in August after a partyroom revolt.
The leadership change did little to improve the coalition’s weak poll numbers.
Divided over energy and social policies, Morrison’s government has struggled to implement a coherent agenda. Its legislative plan was thrown into chaos after the coalition lost its parliamentary majority in October.
(Additional reporting by Sonali Paul in MELBOURNE; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Grant McCool and Paul Tait)