Canberra, Apr 11 (AP/UNB) — Australia's prime minister on Thursday called a May 18 election that will be fought on issues including climate change, asylum seekers and economic management.
"We live in the best country in the world," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters after advising the governor-general to authorize the election.
"But to secure your future, the road ahead depends on a strong economy. And that's why there is so much at stake at this election," he added.
Morrison's conservative coalition is seeking a third three-year term. But Morrison is the third prime minister to lead a divided government in that time and only took the helm in late August.
Opinion polls suggest his reign will become one of the shortest in the 118-year history of Australian prime ministers on election day. The polls suggest center-left opposition leader Bill Shorten will become the eighth prime minister since the country plunged into an extraordinary period of political instability in 2007.
The election pits Shorten, a former labor union leader who has presented himself as the alternative prime minister for the past six years, and Morrison, a leader who the Australian public is still getting to know.
Shorten said in his first news conference since the election was called that his government will take "real action on climate change" and reduce inequality in Australian society if his Labor Party wins power.
"Australians face a real and vital choice at this election. Do you want Labor's energy, versus the government's tiredness? Labor's focus on the future, versus being stuck in the past?" Shorten said.
Morrison is seen as the architect of Australia's tough refugee policy that has all but stopped the people-smuggling traffic of boats from Southeast Asian ports since 2014. The policy has been condemned by human rights groups as an abrogation of Australia's responsibilities as a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention.
Morrison's first job in Prime Minister Tony Abbott's newly elected coalition government in 2013 was as minister for immigration and border protection. He oversaw the secretive military-run Operation Sovereign Borders.
Asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa and Asia would typically disable or sink their boats when intercepted by patrol ships in waters north of Australia so that the Australian crews would have to rescue them rather than turn the boats away. Under the new regime, the asylum seekers were placed in motorized life boats that were towed back to Indonesia. The life boats had just enough fuel to reach the Indonesian coast. The Indonesian government complained the policy was an affront to Indonesian sovereignty.
The government has also maintained a policy adopted in the final months of a Labor government in 2013 of sending boat arrivals to camps on the Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Those who attempt to reach Australia by boat are told they will never be allowed to settle there.
Morrison remains proud of virtually stopping people-smuggler boat traffic. He has a trophy shaped like a people-smuggler's boat in his office inscribed with "I Stopped These."
Labor has promised to maintain the policy of banishing boat arrivals to the islands. But Labor says it would give priority to finding permanent homes for the asylum seekers who have languished in island camps for years.
The conservative coalition argues that the boats would start coming again because a Labor government would soften the regime. The government introduced temporary protection visas for boat arrivals so that refugees face potential deportation every three years if the circumstances that they fled in their homelands improve. Labor would give refugees permanent visas so that they have the certainty to plan their lives.
Climate change policy is a political battlefield in a country that is the world's largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas and has been one of the world's worst greenhouse gas emitters on a per capita basis because of its heavily reliance on coal-fired power generation.
Disagreement over energy policy has been a factor in the last six changes of prime minister.
Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced a carbon tax in 2012. Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott scrapped it two years later.
The coalition is torn between lawmakers who want polluters to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions and those who reject any measures that would increase household power bills.
The government aims to reduce Australian greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Labor has promised a more ambitious target of a 45% reduction in the same time frame.
Action on climate change was a major priority for votes when conservative Prime Minister John Howard's reign ended after more than 11 years at an election in 2007.
Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd immediately signed up to the U.N.'s 1997 Kyoto Protocol on reducing emissions. Australia and the United States had been the only industrialized countries to hold out.
Climate change dropped down the list of Australian priorities after the global financial crisis hit.
But after Australians sweltered through a record hot summer and grappled with devastating drought, global warming has become a high-priority issue for voters again.
The government warns that Labor's emissions reduction plan would wreck the economy.
The coalition also argues that Labor would further damage the economy with its policy of reducing tax breaks for landlords as real estate prices fall in Australia's largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne.
Morrison boasts that the conservative administration Prime Minister Howard led delivered 10 annual surplus budgets and paid off all federal government debt before the government changed at the 2007 election.
Rudd had planned a budget surplus in his government's first fiscal year, but the global financial crisis struck.
Many economists congratulate Rudd for keeping the Australian economy out of recession through stimulus spending. The coalition has accused Labor of spending too much and sinking Australia too deep in debt,
But debt has continued to mount since the conservatives regained the reins in 2013. But opinion polls suggest voters consider the conservatives to be better economic managers.
The government brought forward its annual budget blueprint by a month to April 2 and revealed a plan to balance Australia's books in the next fiscal year for the first time in 12 years.
Labor also promised to deliver a surplus budget in the year starting July 1, but it has yet to detail how it will achieve this goal.
Labor has also promised to spend an additional AU$2.3 billion ($1.6 billion) over four years on covering treatment costs of cancer patients. It's an attractive offer with half Australia's population expected to be diagnosed with some form of the disease in their lifetimes.
The conservatives have largely taken credit for Australia's remarkable run of 28 years of economic growth since its last recession under Labor's rule.
Morrison hopes that voters will look to him to deliver a sequel to the Howard years when a mining boom delivered ever-increasing budget surpluses.
Sydney, Apr 9 (AP/UNB) — Police say they will not charge an Australian teenager or a senator for a spat in which the boy cracked an egg on the politician's head and the man retaliated.
Victoria state police said in a statement Tuesday that after reviewing footage and interviewing both participants, they had issued an official caution only to 17-year-old Will Connolly. They said they concluded Sen. Fraser Anning had acted in self-defense when he twice struck the teen afterward.
Connolly gained fame as "Egg Boy" for egging Anning in Melbourne last month, after the senator controversially blamed the Christchurch mosque massacre on Muslim immigration.
Connolly said in an interview with Ten network's "The Project" that he was disgusted by the senator's comments but understood his actions were wrong.
"I understand what I did was not the right thing to do. I can understand why some people would react the way they did," he said. "There is no reason to physically attack anyone."
Police said they were still trying to identify a man who allegedly kicked Connolly while the teen was restrained on the floor by Anning's supporters.
Anning's colleagues in Australia's Parliament passed a censure motion against him last week for divisive comments "seeking to attribute blame to victims of a horrific crime and to vilify people on the basis of religion, which do not reflect the opinions of the Australian Senate or the Australian people."
Anning sits as an independent lawmaker and had dismissed the censure motion as an attack on free speech.
Last month he also defended striking Connolly, saying: "He got a slap across the face, which is what his mother should have given him long ago, because he's been misbehaving badly."
Australia, Apr 7 (AP/UNB) — May 18 appears the most likely date for Australia's next election at which the conservative government will seek a third three-year term.
Government sources have told media that Prime Minister Scott Morrison will not call an election on Sunday, which had been widely anticipated.
Sunday was the most likely choice if Morrison were to opt for the first of three dates available to him — May 11, May 18 and May 25. While many commentators had previously thought May 11 the most likely election date, May 18 would give the ruling coalition another week to use government money to advertise its policies and achievements.
Once an election is called, the coalition becomes a caretaker government and would need the approval of the center-left Labor Party opposition if taxpayers were to continue funding of what are described as government public information campaigns.
The government is trailing Labor in opinion polls.
Prime ministers traditionally call elections on a Sunday. The campaigns last at least 33 days and officially start a few days after the date is announced.
Monday is the last day that Morrison can call a May 11 election. But doing that would mean senators who had flown to the Australian capital Canberra for committee hearings starting Monday would be sent home that day.
The Australian Electoral Commission website says May 18 is the last possible date for the election because counting votes can take six weeks and must be finalized by June 30. The government would have to invest in more commission resources to cope with a tighter deadline created by a May 25 election.
But Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, the deputy leader of Morrison's conservative Liberal Party, said on Sunday that May 25 remained an option.
Morrison has maintained that he would call an election sometime after April 2 when Frydenberg announced the government's annual budget plan for the next fiscal year beginning July 1.
The government plans to deliver Australia's first surplus budget in 12 years. Labor also promises to balance the budget next year, but had yet to detail how.
Frydenberg said his government was using the time before an election is called to continue explaining its budget plan.
"There's no haste. There's no delay," Fydenberg told Australian Broadcasting Corp., referring to the election timing. He declined to say how money would be spent on government advertising this week, saying that figure would be made public at a later date.
"Money is being spent in accordance with approved processes and that's all transparent," he added.
Prime ministers usually keep their choices of election dates a tightly guarded secret in an effort to put the opposition at a tactical disadvantage.
Sydney, Apr 2 (AP/UNB) — The Australian lawmaker who had an egg cracked on his head by a teenage boy for his comments about last month's New Zealand mosque shootings faced a stinging attack on Tuesday in the first sitting of Australia's Parliament since the attacks.
Independent Sen. Fraser Anning was the target of widespread condemnation after the Christchurch shootings, in which 50 people died, when he blamed the massacre on immigration policies that he said allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand.
Australian white supremacist Brenton Tarrant has been charged with murder in the shootings.
After his comments, Anning faced more criticism for physically striking the teenager who cracked an egg on his head at a Melbourne public appearance — 17-year-old Will Connolly, who became known around the world as "Egg Boy."
Anning will face an official censure motion in Parliament on Wednesday for the comments, which caused more than a million people to sign an online petition calling for his removal from the national legislature.
But when Parliament resumed in Canberra on Tuesday following a monthlong break, one senior fellow lawmaker took the opportunity to lash out at Anning.
Echoing Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's comment that Anning should be charged for striking Connolly, acting government Senate leader Simon Birmingham attacked Anning for his lack of humanity after the shootings.
"The lack of compassion you have shown demonstrates, frankly, a basic lack of basic humanity," Birmingham told Anning, adding that his conduct "betrays the rights you have to freedom of speech."
Birmingham said Anning acted in a way that would potentially fuel more acts of terrorism and violence.
"You have failed the test of character I would expect of anybody who is elected to this place," he said.
Birmingham's outburst came after Anning arrived at Parliament saying he had "no remorse" over his comments. Anning then used the Senate's question time to bring up the egging incident. He quizzed the government about its response to the episode, asking whether it believed politically motivated violence was acceptable in some circumstances.
Birmingham accused Anning of drawing a comparison between his comments about the Christchurch massacre and the egging incident, and said it was an "appalling comparison."
Wednesday's censure motion against Anning has support from both sides of Parliament.
After New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern previously called Anning's comments on the shootings "a disgrace," her deputy Winston Peters on Tuesday called Anning a "jingoistic moron."
"I would call him a four-flushing, jingoistic moron, but you already know that in Australia," Peters said in a television interview with Australia's Sky News.
Immediately after Anning's response to the massacre last month, Morrison said the comments were "appalling and they're ugly and they have no place in Australia."
Anning came under blistering criticism over tweets within hours of the massacre, including one that said, "Does anyone still dispute the link between Muslim immigration and violence?"
"The real cause of the bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place," he said in a later statement.
Canberra, Mar 27 (AP/UNB) — Australia's prime minister on Tuesday accused an influential minor political party of trying to "sell Australia's gun laws to the highest bidders" by asking the U.S. gun lobby for donations.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was responding to an Al Jazeera documentary that reported One Nation party officials Steve Dickson and James Ashby flew to the United States for meetings with pro-gun interests including the National Rifle Association and political donors Koch Industries in September last year seeking money to undermine Australian gun laws.
Dickson and Ashby later told reporters that they had not secured any U.S. money. They also said they had been quoted by Al Jazeera out of context and often after drinking.
The trip took place weeks before the Australian Parliament banned foreign political donations with laws that took effect Jan. 1.
Morrison said the revelations were reasons why Australians should not vote for One Nation at general elections due in May.
"We have reports that One Nation officials basically sought to sell Australia's gun laws to the highest bidders to a foreign buyer and I find that abhorrent," Morrison said.
Morrison said his government had made laws to "criminalize taking foreign political donations so foreign lobbyists cannot seek to influence our politics."
Opposition leader Bill Shorten, whom opinion polls suggest will be prime minister after the election, accused One Nation of a "betrayal of the Australian political system."
"The idea of One National political party operatives going to the United States, seeking millions of dollars, promising to water-down gun law protection in Australia — that was absolutely horrifying," Shorten said.
The Al Jazeera documentary used secret recordings made by a journalist posing as gun lobbyist Rodger Muller with a hidden camera.
One Nation, an anti-Muslim party that had four senators after 2016 election but has been left with two after defections, said in a statement that all party members "have always complied with the law."
One Nation also suggested the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera had breached new laws that prohibit covert foreign interference in Australian politics. The party said it had had complained to Australia's main domestic security agency and police "due to concerns of foreign interference into Australian politics in the lead up to the imminent federal election."
"Al Jazeera are a state owned propaganda arm of the Qatari government that supports Islamic extremist groups and are not a legitimate media organization," the statement said.
"One Nation was invited by Rodger Muller, who has now been outed as a foreign agent working for Al Jazeera to meet with the NRA, American business leaders and attend the Congressional Sportsmen's Dinner" in Washington, the statement said.
The NRA in a statement late Tuesday said Al Jazeera representatives, disguised as members of a group called "Gun Rights Australia," had set up meetings with NRA employees and brought Australian political party members to those meetings. "At no time did the NRA contribute funding to any Australian political party or Gun Rights Australia," NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said in the statement.
Ashby, who is party leader Pauline Hanson's chief of staff, is recorded saying that the party would "own" both the Australian Senate and House of Representatives with a $20 million donation from the U.S. gun lobby. This means the party would hold the balance of power in both chambers and influence a government's legislative agenda.
Ashby also warned that if such a donation became public, it would "rock the boat."
He told reporters on Tuesday that the U.S. trip had been a fact-finding mission to learn campaign tactics.
"These conversations with the NRA were to look at nothing more than their techniques. This was not about sourcing money from the NRA. This was about sourcing technology, sourcing an understanding of how they operate, but never was it about seeking $20 million dollars from the NRA," Ashby told reporters.
The news followed the mosque attacks in New Zealand on March 15 for which an Australian white supremacist has been charged with murder. New Zealand has responded by banning a range of semi-automatic weapons and foreshadowing a government-funded buyback of newly outlawed guns. The country's response is similar to how Australia strengthened its gun laws following the murders of 35 people by a lone gunman in 1996 in Tasmania.
One Nation state president Steve Dickson, who is a Senate candidate at the next election, traveled with Ashby and Muller to the United States to ask for political donations, Al Jazeera reported.
Dickon told NRA officials that the Australian gun control model "will poison us all, unless we stop it," Al Jazeera reported.
Dickson told reporters on Tuesday he supported Australia's gun laws. He said had not solicited donations in the United States, but conceded his party was not wealthy.
"I will tell you the absolute, humble truth. When I was asked: 'Do we need money to run election campaigns?' I said: 'Yes,'" Dickson told reporters.
A former One Nation senator who is now an independent lawmaker, Fraser Anning, has been widely criticized for blaming Muslim immigration for the New Zealand massacre.
Hanson, One Nation's leader who was criticized for wearing a burqa in the Senate, voted for the ban on foreign donations in November.
"Overseas money should not have an influence in our political scene .... so I believe foreign donations should be stopped," Hanson told the Senate.
Ashby and Dickson said Hanson did not speak to the media on Tuesday because she was unwell.