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Australia's conservatives owe 'miracle' win to economic promises

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's shrewd marketing proves successful

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to supporters after his opponent, Labor Party leader Bill Shorten, conceded defeat in the federal election in Sydney on Sunday.   © AP

SYDNEY -- The Australian federal election on Saturday brought a surprise victory for the ruling Liberal-National coalition, which managed to swing votes its way by promising one thing: a stronger economy.

The electoral commission was still counting votes as of Sunday. The coalition so far has secured 75 seats out of 151 in the lower house, one seat short of a majority, according to local broadcaster ABC.

The result defied opinion surveys and early exit polls that pointed to a victory for the opposition Labor Party.

However, while the polls suggested Labor was voters' preferred party, coalition leader Scott Morrison was more popular throughout the campaign than his Labor counterpart, Bill Shorten.

According to Andrew Hughes, a lecturer in marketing at the Australian National University, Morrison's "simplistic messaging" paid off. Morrison, who has a background in tourism marketing, stressed his ability to deliver a stronger economy -- one that would provide jobs and pay for services such as health care.

Experts suggested that polls were misleading because of problems with sampling and data adjustment, which have become more complicated as people move to mobile phones. ANU's Hughes also pointed out that the polls do not reflect the importance of emotions, such as negative voter sentiment toward Shorten.

Shorten was apparently seen by many as untrustworthy in his words and actions, such as when he switched sides in internal Labor Party disputes. Shorten announced on Saturday that he will step down as leader, leaving other senior party members, including Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek, to prepare for a leadership contest.

Labor's contentious policies calling for an end to tax breaks for property investors and shareholders also took a toll on Labor's popularity. The party made the fight against climate change a central theme of its campaign, but in the end the state of Queensland -- which the government promised a new coal mine that will create new jobs -- stuck with the conservatives. That choice proved decisive nationally.

Morrison hammered home the idea that Labor's policies would lead to higher taxes and weaken the economy. He attacked Shorten for not being honest with voters about the cost of Labor's program.

Election watchers say the campaign turned more on the question of party image and leadership, rather than a rigorous discussion of policy. A Labor government "would negatively affect my family," said a 45 year-old dietitian voting at Darlinghurst Public School in Sydney on Saturday, although she acknowledged that she did not fully understand the policies of either side.

Morrison, a social conservative and evangelical Christian, has "certainly cemented his leadership," said Stewart Jackson, a lecturer in government and international relations at the University of Sydney, adding that the coalition election victory took the country by surprise.

The winners are proposing a number of steps to jolt the economy, which has been showing signs of fatigue after 28 years of nonstop expansion. The Reserve Bank of Australia, the central bank, forecasts economic growth of 2.6% this year, down from 3.3% in 2018. UBS economist Carlos Cacho predicts residential investment will be down 15% from its September peak by the end of 2020.

The coalition wants to work with companies to develop new qualifications to boost employment. It also plans to cut income taxes and spend 100 billion Australian dollars ($68.6 billion) on infrastructure. The government says its budget will deliver Australia's first surplus in 12 years. "This would be consistent with our fiscal assumptions when we last affirmed Australia's 'AAA' rating," said Fitch Ratings.

It is still not clear whether the coalition will win a majority, and it may need to bargain with independent members of parliament to govern. Surveying the position of the independents, Sydney University's Jackson said: "Much of the [coalition's] economic plan will go through."

The coalition victory largely represents a vote for the status quo.

On environmental policy, the government is proposing subsidies aimed at encouraging companies to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but these are not sufficient to meet Australia's targets under the Paris Agreement, which was signed by former coalition leader Tony Abbot, according to Tony Wood, energy program director at the Grattan Institute, a think tank. Wood said the coalition will eventually have to take additional steps to meet the government's commitments.

On the foreign policy front, the coalition will have to deal with tensions in relations with China, a key trade partner. Labor has a reputation for placing greater importance on Asia in its foreign policy, but most experts agree there is little difference between the two sides on matters of diplomacy.

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