Tight election may leave Australia with hung parliament

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s government and opposition were running neck-and-neck in vote counting after elections Saturday that could end with neither side able to form a majority government.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten told supporters in a speech late Saturday night that the results of the election may not be known for days. But he sounded an optimistic tone for his party, while accusing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s conservative coalition government of failing to deliver the economic reform and steady leadership Australians want.

“Whatever happens next week, Mr. Turnbull will never be able to claim that the people of Australia have adopted his ideological agenda,” Shorten told cheering supporters. “He will never again be able to promise the stability which he has completely failed to deliver tonight.”

Parties need to hold at least 76 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives in order to form a government. As of late Saturday night, the Australian Electoral Commission said the ruling conservative coalition was leading in 71 seats, the center-left Labor Party in 68 seats, and minor parties or independents in five seats. Counting was less clear in another six seats.

Turnbull called the rare early election — dubbed a “double dissolution” because both the House of Representatives and the Senate are dissolved — in a bid to break a legislative deadlock over a bill that would have created a construction industry watchdog. But the result of the election may bring further deadlock: If neither party earns a majority of seats in the House, both Labor and the coalition will be forced to try to forge alliances with independent lawmakers to form a minority government.

Hung parliaments are extremely rare in Australia, having occurred only twice since 1940. The most recent was in 2010, when then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ruling Labor Party was forced to forge an alliance with the minor Greens party and three independent lawmakers to form a fragile minority government. Three years later, the coalition swept to power after winning 90 seats.

Treasurer Scott Morrison said he thought the coalition would be able to form a majority government. But Labor’s only hope was to form a minority government.

Saturday’s elections continue an extraordinarily volatile period in the nation’s politics, where internal party squabbling and fears over sagging poll ratings have prompted five changes of prime minister in as many years.

Amid the chaos, both parties sought to paint themselves during the campaign as the safer, more stable choice. But selling stability was a tough job for either party, both of which have been marred by infighting in recent years. Shorten played a key role in ousting two of the Labor Party’s own prime ministers in the space of three years, and Turnbull himself ousted Tony Abbott as prime minister in an internal party showdown less than a year ago. Up until 2007, conservative John Howard served as prime minister for nearly 12 years.

Several government ministers blamed the strong result for Labor on a dishonest campaign that the conservatives were threatening Australia’s universal health care system known as Medicare.

“Even today people were talking about not being able to afford health care because we were going to get rid of Medicare. It was utter rubbish. But what do you do when one party relies on a monstrous lie to get elected,” Liberal Party Deputy Leader Julie Bishop told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Two weeks before the election, Shorten ramped up his campaign on health policy by describing the poll as a referendum on the future of Australia’s universal health care system.

A Labor government introduced government-funded Medicare in 1984 to provide free or subsidized health care for all Australian citizens and permanent residents.

Labor accused the government of planning to privatize Medicare — a claim Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed as an audacious scare campaign.

But aside from the privatization debate, Shorten also promised to better fund Medicare than the government.

He promised to increase the government subsidies paid to private doctors to treat patients. The government had frozen the subsidy rate for the next four years, with many patients likely to be charged more for consultations.

Shorten also promised to store incentives paid to private companies to provide free X-ray and pathology services to patients. The government cut those incentives from July 1.

Saturday’s uncertain result suggests the era of volatility in Australian politics is set to continue. Many Aussies who lined up at the polls were weary of the constant upheaval.

Morag McCrone, who voted for Labor at a polling station in Sydney, acknowledged her choice could lead to yet another new prime minister, but couldn’t bring herself to vote for Turnbull’s party.

“Internationally, it’s embarrassing,” McCrone said of the endless stream of leadership changes. “It’s a bit like ancient Rome at times, really.”

Sydney resident Beau Reid, who also voted for Labor, agreed.

“I’m getting a little bit sick of it,” Reid said. “Not to say that John Howard was a great prime minister, but it was good to have someone who was at the helm for a period that wasn’t two (or) three years.”

The government has focused much of its campaign on a promise to generate jobs and economic growth through tax cuts to big businesses. Economic growth is a key issue for many Australians, who have seen thousands of jobs vanish from the country’s once-booming resources sector amid China’s industrial slowdown.

Labor has said it will keep the higher tax rates and use the revenue to better fund schools and hospitals.


Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.