Australian election underway, with poll-leading Labor Party hoping for 1st win since 2007
Nearly half of Australia's 17 million electors have voted early or applied for postal votes
Vote counting started in Australia's election on Saturday that will decide whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative government can defy odds and rule for a fourth three-year term.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese's centre-left Labor Party is a favourite to win its first election since 2007.
But in the last election, in 2019, Morrison defied the opinion polls and led his coalition to a narrow victory.
His coalition holds the narrowest of majorities, 76 seats in the 151-seat House of Representatives where parties need a majority to form government.
Both leaders campaigned in Melbourne on Saturday morning before voting in their hometown of Sydney.
A federal judge ordered the removal of mostly green-coloured campaign signs near Melbourne polling stations that urged voters to "Put Labor Last." The signs were designed to look like they were authorized by the Australian Greens, an environmental party that prefers the policies of Labor to Morrison's coalition. But a business group was responsible for them.
Albanese went with his partner Jodie Haydon, his 21-year-old son Nathan Albanese and his cavoodle Toto to vote at the Marrickville Town Hall in his inner-Sydney electorate.
Albanese would not be drawn into saying whether Toto would move into the prime minister's official residence in Sydney or Canberra if Labor wins.
"We're not getting ahead of ourselves," Albanese said. "I'm very positive and hopeful about a good outcome tonight."
He referred to his humble upbringing as the only child of a single mother who became a disabled pensioner and lived in government housing.
"When you come from where I've come from, one of the advantages that you have is that you don't get ahead of yourself. Everything in life's a bonus," Albanese said.
Morrison cites action on asylum seekers
Morrison voted with his wife Jenny at the Lilli Pilli Public School in his southern Sydney electorate.
He later used the rare interception of a suspected asylum seeker boat attempting to enter Australian waters as a reason why voters should re-elect his government.
Australian Border Force said in a statement the boat had been intercepted in a "likely attempt to illegally enter Australia from Sri Lanka."
The Australian policy was to return those on board to their point of departure, the statement said.
Morrison argues Labor would be weaker on preventing people smugglers from trafficking asylum seekers.
"I've been here to stop this boat, but in order for me to be there to stop those that may come from here, you need to vote Liberal and Nationals today," Morrison told reporters, referring to his coalition.
The boat carrying 15 passengers had been intercepted near the Australian Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island on Saturday morning, The Weekend Australian newspaper reported.
The number of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat peaked at 20,000 in 2013, the year Morrison's coalition was first elected.
Morrison's first government role was overseeing a military-led operation that turned back asylum seeker boats and virtually ended the people trafficking trade from Asia.
The first polling stations closed on the country's east coast at 6 p.m. local time. The west coast is two hours behind.
Varied styles of casting ballots
Due to the pandemic, more than 48 per cent of Australia's 17 million electors have voted early or applied for postal votes, which will likely slow the count.
Voting is compulsory for adult citizens, and 92 per cent of registered voters cast ballots at the last election.
Early polling for reasons of travel or work began two weeks ago, and the Australian Electoral Commission will continue collecting postal votes for another two weeks.
The government changed regulations on Friday to enable people recently infected with COVID-19 to vote over the phone.
Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers said more than 7,000 polling stations opened as planned and on time across Australia despite 15 per cent of polling staff falling sick this week with COVID-19 and flu.
Albanese said he had thought Morrison would have called the election last weekend because Australia's prime minister is expected at a Tokyo summit on Tuesday with U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"If we get a clear outcome today then whoever is prime minister will be on a plane to Tokyo on Monday, which isn't ideal, I've got to say, immediately after a campaign," Albanese told Nine Network television.
Analysts say Morrison left the election until the last date available to him to give him more time to reduce Labor's lead in opinion polls.
Labor is promising more spending on child and seniors care. The coalition is promising better economic management as Australia's deficit soars due to the pandemic.
Morrison said if re-elected, his government would deliver lower taxes as well as downward pressure on interest rates and costs of living.
"It's a choice about who can best manage our economy and our finances because a strong economy is what guarantees your future," Morrison told Nine Network.
The closely watched Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper on Saturday put Labor ahead, with 53 per cent of voter support.
The poll surveyed 2,188 voters across Australia from May 13 to 19. It has a 2.9 per cent margin of error.
The split of votes between the government and Labor in 2019 was 51.5 per cent to 48.5 per cent — the mirror opposite of the result that Australia's five most prominent polls including Newspoll predicted.
Challenge from independents
As well as campaigning against Labor, Morrison's conservative Liberal Party is fighting off a new challenge from so-called teal independent candidates to key government lawmakers' re-election in party strongholds.
The teal independents are marketed as a greener shade than the Liberal Party's traditional blue colour and want stronger government action on reducing Australia's greenhouse gas emissions than either the government or Labor are proposing.
The government aims to reduce Australia's emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Labor has promised a 43 per cent reduction.