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Politics

Jobs and traffic jams take center stage in Australia election

Ruling camp tries to catch up in polls amid troubling signs in housing

An iron mine in the state of Western Australia. Rural economies in Australia have been hit by falling commodity prices.   © Reuters

SYDNEY -- Australia's two main parties are campaigning on who can best deliver on jobs and infrastructure ahead of a general election that comes as the country's record-long economic expansion shows signs of losing momentum in real estate, a key driver.

The ruling bloc, the conservative Liberal-National Coalition, finds itself behind the liberal opposition Labor Party in the lead-up to the election due by May, a recent poll shows.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who will lead the Coalition to the polls for the first time, promised his government will create 1.25 million jobs over the next five years, in a Jan. 29 speech in the northern state of Queensland. He also unveiled a 240 million Australian dollar ($171 million) transportation infrastructure plan for the state.

"So what is the proof of a strong economy?" asked Morrison. "It's jobs. Always jobs."

Morrison followed up with a stop on Feb. 6 in Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city behind Sydney, where he pledged to combat the area's traffic problems. "Our plan for a stronger economy means we can back the local projects that will help bust congestion around the city and suburbs," he said.

Meanwhile, the Labor Party has struck back with an employment and infrastructure message of its own, while stressing the party's bread-and-butter issues of worker protection and social welfare.

"It's about jobs, jobs, jobs," party leader Bill Shorten said in the city of Gladstone on Jan. 22. "And secure jobs, in Gladstone and across Australia." He promised to boost employment by spending AU$1 billion to build up the nation's hydrogen energy industry.

In addition, Labor is pledging AU$5 billion for rail projects in Sydney and Brisbane to help ease traffic congestion. The party also seeks to advance a proposed high-speed rail line between Brisbane and Melbourne.

Australia's economy grew for 109 consecutive quarters through September. But the commodities boom that drove the expansion in the 2000s has waned, undercutting local economies dependent on mining.

A housing boom later stepped in to prop up the economy, but property prices have recently started to slip, owing in part to slower inflows of Chinese investment. Rising urban populations have contributed to traffic jams, a source of resentment among voters.

In the general election, about half of the 76 Senate seats will be up for grabs, along with all 151 seats in the House of Representatives.

The latest survey conducted by The Australian newspaper and Newspoll shows the Labor Party with 53% support, followed by the Liberal-National Coalition at 47%.

The Coalition has held onto power since 2013, but its time in government has been marked by strife within its Liberal Party core. Liberals twice switched party leaders. Morrison took office last August following the ouster of his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull.

Labor is proposing an economic policy package that is not much different from what the ruling coalition is putting forward. But Morrison is quick to dismiss the opposition's agenda.

"I think I'm pretty blunt about it," Morrison said. "The economy will be weaker under Bill Shorten and Labor."

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