Scott Morrison has called the election for May 18.
After returning from Melbourne to Canberra late Wednesday night, Morrison visited the Governor-General Peter Cosgrove at 7 am on Thursday.
Following the redistribution, the government goes into the election with a notional 73 seats; Labor has 72. The winner needs 76 for a majority in the new House of Representatives, which has 151 members, one more than formerly.
The election is also for half the Senate.
Labor starts the campaign as favourite, having had a long-term consistent lead in the polls.
The campaign itself – which will be interrupted by Easter and Anzac Day – will be absolutely vital for the Coalition’s chance of clinging onto power, given it is starting from behind.
Addressing the media in the Prime Minister’s courtyard at Parliament House at 8 am, Morrison put the economy at front and centre of his re-election pitch: “There is a clear choice […] that will determine the economy that Australians live in, not just for the next three years but for the next decade.”
This choice was “between the government that is delivering a strong economy and will continue to do so, or Bill Shorten’s Labor party that we always know can’t manage money”.
It was between a government that was “lowering taxes for all Australians” and “Bill Shorten’s Labor party that will impose higher taxes that will weigh down our economy. It’s taken more than five years to turn around Labor’s budget mess. Now is not the time to turn back.”
With the Coalition hoping Shorten’s unpopularity will work against the opposition, Morrison also personalised the election choice. “It is crystal clear, at this election, it is a choice between me as prime minister and Bill Shorten as prime minister. If you vote for me, you’ll get me. You vote for Bill Shorten and you’ll get Bill Shorten”.
Asked how he would counter Labor’s campaign around “fairness’, Morrison said: “Under a Liberal-Nationals government, we will always be backing in those Australians who are looking to make a contribution, not take one and, together, that’s how we make our country stronger”.
Shorten tweeted “Good morning from Moonee Ponds! I’m ready to deliver a fair go for Australia. Who’s with me?”
Later in the morning Shorten delivered his opening message from the home of a family in the Melbourne suburb of Mitcham, saying the choice was about “being stuck in the past or a bright future and a positive view of what Australians can do together.”
“If you want better than the last six years, if you want a fair go for all Australians, if you want a government who is united and not constantly trying to tear each other down, then vote Labor on May 18,” he said.
This week’s Newspoll has Labor leading 52-48% on the two-party vote. The government got a small bounce in that poll after a well-received budget last week.
The key battleground states will be Victoria – where the removal of Malcolm Turnbull went down badly and the government has a number of seats at risk – and Queensland, with its many Coalition marginal seats. Western Australia will also be important.
The Coalition will rely heavily on scare campaigns against Labor policies on negative gearing, changes to franking credit arrangements, and climate change, as well as painting the ALP as a high-taxing party.
The extensive use of social media will be a feature of this campaign.
Late Wednesday Morrison posted a video featuring his family, “My vision for Australia”, defining the election as about Australia’s direction over the next decade.
“The real question is, is what country do you want to live in for the next 10 years,” he says in the video, referring to “the choices my girls will have”.
“See, the decisions you make in one term of government last for a decade or more. So it isn’t just about the next three years – it is about, what does the next decade look like?”.
“You change the government, you change the course of the country – and it takes a long time to get it back on track”.
The formal start of the campaign follows a post-budget week in which the government took advantage of incumbency with extensive publicly-funded advertising of its programs.
The government has also made a large number of last-minute appointments to a range of government boards and public institutions, the last of them on Wednesday night. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said on Wednesday Labor would examine these appointments and reserved the right to reject them.
Once the election is called the government goes into caretaker mode in which the convention is that major decisions are not taken nor appointments made.
May 18 was the last date for the Australian Electoral Commission to conveniently complete counting before the July 1 start of the new Senate’s term – although earlier there was speculation that the date might be pushed out by Morrison to May 25.
This election sees a number of high profile independents running in heartland Liberal seats.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is under intense pressure from Zali Steggall in his Sydney electorate of Warringah.
In the Victorian seat of Flinders, Julia Banks, the member for Chisholm who defected from the Liberals to join the crossbench last year, is challenging Health Minister Greg Hunt. Labor is given a strong chance in the seat.