SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s political leaders on Thursday made their last big pitch to voters ahead of a May 18 election, with the death of Bob Hawke, the opposition Labor party’s longest-serving prime minister likely to loom over the political scene in coming days.
The hugely popular Hawke, 89, died on Thursday and was hailed by Labor leader Bill Shorten for his role in advancing opportunities for education among the working class.
“With his passing, the labour movement salutes our greatest son,” Shorten said in a statement.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that Hawke “had a unique ability to speak to all Australians and will be greatly missed.”
Labor is on track to end six years of conservative rule although re-election prospects for Morrison have been lifted by tightening polls after early fears he would lose decisively.
Memories of the popular politician’s famous moments, however, are likely to dominate media over the next few days and may give Labor a boost in the final days of the campaign.
In contrasting campaigns, Shorten offered voters an egalitarian dream and reform agenda, saying “It’s Time” for a change, while Morrison warned a change to Labor would risk the nation’s long-held economic prosperity.
An Essential Poll for the Guardian newspaper on Thursday showed Labor ahead of Morrison’s coalition government by a margin of 51.5-48.5 on a two-party preferred basis where votes are distributed until a winner is declared.
Both Morrison and Shorten have campaigned relentlessly since the election was called last month, squeezing in trips to the outback north and island south, along with obligatory big city tours.
On Thursday, Morrison delivered his last major campaign speech in Canberra, while Shorten gave his in Sydney.
They urged voters to see Saturday’s ballot as essentially a fight between Morrison’s aspirations and Shorten’s reforms.
“I will burn for you every day, every single day, so you can achieve your ambitions, your aspirations, your desires. That is what’s at the top of my agenda,” said Morrison.
While Morrison promised stability, Shorten promised “real change”, reducing inequality through tax reform, higher wages and better public infrastructure.
“Our political opponents stand where they always have stood - against change, against progress, and are servants to the same vested interests - the big banks and big business,” Shorten said.
Climate change policy has consistently polled as one of the most significant issues this election, prompting a movement in marginal seats to remove government hard-right politicians who champion coal-fired power.
“I promise that we will send a message to the world, that when it comes to climate change Australia is back in the fight,” said Shorten.
“We will take this emergency seriously, and we will not just leave it to other countries or to the next generation.”
If Labor wins, it plans to cut carbon emissions by 45% from 2005 levels by 2030 and reach 50% renewable power by 2030.
Morrison’s coalition has committed to a 26 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 under the Paris Accord, but some in his government question the need for that and the coalition remains staunchly in favour of coal-fired power.
Morrison’s Liberal-led coalition and centre-left Labor are vying for a majority share of 151 lower house seats to form government. There are also 76 Senate spots which determine how difficult it will be for the next government to enact policy.
While Morrison, who took over as prime minister last year amid party infighting, has kept the government within reach of an election upset, his path to victory remains narrow.
“Realistically, Morrison will require everything to go right,” said Chris Salisbury, professor of political science at the University of Queensland.
“He will need a number of surprising results, and the polls show this is unlikely.”
Morrison has tied his campaign to economic management, after announcing in April the government would deliver the first surplus in more than a decade.
But the promise of economic stability has been partially undermined by stagnant wage rises, high costs of living and falling house prices. Shortly before Morrison delivered his Canberra speech, the unemployment rate rose to the highest in eight months.
Labor, a party with deep ties to the union movement, has promised to abolish several property and share investment tax concessions primarily aimed at the wealthy.
It has been able pledge bigger budget surpluses, while also ramping up spending on health and education, which directly challenges the government’s re-election platform.
Reporting by Colin Packham and Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY; Additional reporting by Melanie Burton in MELBOURNE; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel