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Australians will go to the polls next month to elect a new government, and because elections take place as soon as 33 days after they’re officially called, the country’s politicians will have to move quickly to solidify votes.
Whoever takes the helm will have to contend with a set of challenges that mirror those of other democracies around the world.
Here’s a look at some of the key domestic and international issues that we’ll be watching and that Australia’s leaders will be confronting.
In February, Australia became the latest Western nation whose institutions had most likely been tampered with after the government acknowledged that Parliament’s computer network had been hacked by a foreign government.
No country has been named as being behind the cyberattack, but security experts say China, Russia, and possibly Iran and North Korea are among the suspects.
Officials said the three major political parties were among those affected, but wouldn’t say to what extent, because they hadn’t seen anything like this breach before. Even as he said a “sophisticated state actor” was behind the attack, Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted there was “no evidence of any electoral interference.”
Australian elections are quick, they are compulsory and the majority of voters will cast their ballots on paper. However, during the last federal election, some areas used electronic lists to check voters’ names off electoral rolls. It’s not yet known if those electronic lists will be used in light of the recent hack.
The Australia that will go to the polls in May is markedly different to the one that voted in 2016, particularly when it comes to China. Then, the Australian economy was on fire, Chinese investment had surged to a new high, and while the government blocked some Chinese bids for infrastructure projects, it was a record-setting year for deals with Chinese companies.
For years, the Australian government had been able to successfully navigate its economic ties with its largest trading partner, China, and its strategic relationship with its greatest ally, the United States, without having to compromise on either.
But a slew of events have redefined Canberra’s relationship with Beijing. In 2017, a prominent Australian senator, Sam Dastyari, resigned over accusations of lobbying for Beijing and taking money from Chinese-born political donors. The government passed a foreign interference law, requiring lobbyists for other countries to register and disclose their activities — one of many efforts to push the Chinese government’s soft-power campaign out of the shadows.
And in August, Australia banned Huawei, the Chinese technology giant, from participating in the building of a fifth-generation telecommunications network.
Politicians have been reluctant to explicitly discuss the China challenge up till now, but pressure will continue to build no matter who wins the election.
It was ostensibly energy policy that led to Malcolm Turnbull becoming the third prime minister in 10 years to lose the job — a dispute about addressing climate change prompted the change.
But the public is far less divided. A recent poll found that 59 percent of Australians are concerned about climate change and frustrated at the lack of initiative from Canberra to address it.
Several independent candidates are running in key electorates — including the former head of a clean energy corporation who is campaigning for the seat won last time by Josh Frydenberg, the treasurer.
Even so, the two main political parties have staked out vastly different positions on climate change. The Labor Party has said that there will be no new coal-powered plants if it wins, but the Coalition has not ruled them out. Labor also supports a 45 percent emissions target by 2030, while the Liberal Party said that it is committed to 26 percent by 2030. Labor has also promised rebates for households installing solar batteries and wants 50 percent of new car sales to be electric vehicles by 2030.
Mr. Morrison says he will spend billions of dollars on a hydroelectricity project to help alleviate rising power bills and offset carbon emissions. He has criticized the opposition’s policies, arguing that higher emissions targets would “crash the economy.”
As President Trump calls for funding to build a wall on the Mexico border, Mr. Morrison continues to boast of his role in stopping boats full of asylum seekers heading to Australia, and now wants to limit the number of skilled migrants who come to the country legally each year.
The move to reduce the current cap on immigration by nearly 30,000 people is seen as a step back by many. The country has relied on immigrant labor to fuel its economic boom as its population has grown to 25 million. The move also represents a reversal for Mr. Morrison, who pushed back against cutting the cap before he became prime minister.
The Labor Party, on the other hand, wants to increase the annual refugee intake from 16,250 to 27,000 by 2025 and said it would stick to the current migration cap should it win.
But the issue of immigration has created a heated debate in Australia, as voters and politicians ask: How much of the opposition to immigration comes from concerns over strained infrastructure in cities, and how much comes from racism, Islamophobia and fear?
A senator recently made global headlines when he blamed Muslim immigration for the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Mr. Morrison has had to deflect criticism of his party as anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. When asked if the Coalition had a problem with Islamophobia, he said: “As leader, my job is to set the right tone. And the tone I have set, you can see from my experience. My example has been to work with the Muslim community very deeply.”
So what’s the most important issue for you this election? Share it with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, on to some reader responses and other highlights from The Times this week.
Deceptive Journalism: Readers Respond
Many of you weighed in on our examination last week of Al Jazeera’s undercover investigation on the National Rifle Association and whether it was ethical. Thanks to all who wrote in or shared in our Facebook group. Here’s a few of your responses.
“I am all for journalists using deception if it is the only way to expose something as serious as the activities of the gun lobby and One Nation. We heard them say to put nothing in a recordable form that can be investigated in any accepted way, including by law enforcement, so if they are being so deceptive, deceptive journalism is the only way to find the truth.” — Helen O’Dea
“One assumes that the job of journalists is to uncover the truth. If you ask people (particularly One Nation people) questions, they will lie to you. This method worked a lot better as a means to expose what One Nation really stand for. I like it. Would I like it if some of my political allies were shown up as a bit grubby? Well not as much, but its still a legitimate technique.” — John Brookes
“Your ethics guide is right. The last thing you want is to be accused of deception in pursuit of a story as that diminishes the validity of said story.
“The issue of what, and who makes the determination, is in the public interest is equally as important. The case of the N.R.A. and One Nation is a clear-cut case of foreign intervention in our democratic process. That is a concern and definitely in the public interest.
“But there are cases, no doubt, that are less clear, which begs the question: how does the NYT decide what is in the public interest? Sticky area!” — Ian Baxter
And We Recommend …
… A special breakfast briefing in Sydney with Mark Thompson, president and chief executive of The New York Times Company.
Mark will be in conversation with Paul Barry, host of ABC’s Media Watch, on April 12 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. He’ll share his thoughts on the shifting global media landscape and the risks to democracy from declining investment in quality journalism.
The event is free and you can register for it here. We hope to see you there!