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Australia’s elections carry demands for climate change action, political stability

Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten waves to people in front of the Opera House in Sydney on May 17, 2019. (Lukas Coch/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

SYDNEY — Poll after poll in Australia arrive at the same conclusions: Voters are tired of political instability after revolving-door leadership for years, and they seek stronger action on global warming.

None of this looks good for the center-right government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which is expected to be pushed aside in Saturday’s national elections in favor of Australia’s left-leaning Labor Party.

The anticipated Labor surge offers a counternarrative to the rise of nationalists and conservative groups across the West and elsewhere.

A Labor victory in Australia also could provide a morale shot for U.S. Democrats and other left-of-center parties around the world, including the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, which has long had close ties to its Australian counterpart.

Opinion polls and betting markets predict Australia’s Labor Party, under the leadership of 52-year-old former union head Bill Shorten, will handily defeat the Liberal-National party coalition that has governed the country for five-and-a-half tumultuous years.

Shorten’s promises of a wider social safety net, support for renewable energy and government stability — after six prime ministers in eight years — have resonated strongly across the country.

The Labor Party wants Australia to generate half its electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2030, a huge shift for a nation with the world’s fourth-largest coal reserves and the eighth-biggest natural gas industry.

Labor’s popularity also has been boosted by its foreign policy chief, Penny Ying-Yen Wong, a Malaysia-born lawyer who has a wide following and is seen as a top candidate to become foreign minister.

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Shorten held a campaign rally Thursday in the same Sydney public hall where one of his party’s most-loved prime ministers, Gough Whitlam, gave a 1972 campaign speech that heralded the end of 23 years of conservative rule and has since gone down in Australian political folklore as the “It’s Time” speech.

“My fellow Australians, the door to a better, bolder and more-equal future stands ajar,” Shorten said. “The chance for a smarter, more progressive Australia is before us. The choice for Australia to be a leader in the world is ours to make. And the power is in your hands.”

The Labor Party has promised more free health care, greater spending on education and tax cuts for the middle and working classes. The wealthy should be forced to pay higher taxes and unions given more power, it has said.

The Liberal and National parties have also promised tax cuts, although both have been ridiculed for offering much of the reductions until 2024, which would be after at least one more national election.

Environmental policies are possibly the biggest difference between the two sides.

To encourage new sources of power, Labor has promised to subsidize the purchase solar-panel batteries by individual homes. It has also said it will introduce a compulsory carbon trading system for some 250 companies responsible for the greatest emissions of greenhouse gases.

Pollution emissions standards for vehicles would also be toughened to encourage the purchase of electric cars, a policy the current government says threatens many Australians’ love of trucks.

The election comes just days after the death of one of Australia’s transformative political figures, former prime minister Bob Hawke.

His wife, Blanche d’Alpuget, announced the Thursday death of the 89-year-old Hawke, but did not give a cause. In Hawke’s last public statement, he issued an open letter urging voters to support Labor leader Shorten.

Hawke, who served as prime minister from 1983 to 1991, was widely regarded as the most successful Labor politician in Australian history and was known for integrating the country into the global economy, forging alliances with Asian nations and strengthening ties with world powers such as the United States.

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