Australian election on knife-edge as most polls close

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SYDNEY: Australians voted in national elections Saturday culminating a marathon race where economic management became a key issue in the wake of the Brexit verdict, with the result on a knife-edge.

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Voting stations in the crucial states of Queensland and New South Wales shut at 6 p.m. (0800 GMT), along with Victoria, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, with those on the west coast to close two hours later.

Early exit polls showed conservative leader Malcolm Turnbull, who has the backing of the nation’s powerful media, and Labor challenger Bill Shorten in a dead heat.

A poll by Channel Nine of 25 marginal seats taken before voting ended showed the two major parties at 50-50, reinforcing the closeness of the eight-week campaign where neither man has been able to decisively take the lead.

But it forecast a national swing of 3.4 percent against Turnbull’s Liberal/National coalition, which could see Labor picking up at least eight or nine seats.

That would still not be enough for Labor to clinch the 76 seats needed to form a majority government in the 150-seat House of Representatives.

The broadcaster said that depending on how many crossbenchers — politicians who are independent or from minor parties — win seats, it means there is a chance the coalition may also fall short of 76.

This could create a hung parliament where no side commands a lower house majority, as voters fed up with traditional politicians look for alternatives.

“First term governments always, always, have a swing against them. We know that,” Treasurer Scott Morrison said.

Another poll by Sky News tipped Turnbull to win, with 62 percent of voters believing he will prevail and just 19 percent expecting a Labor victory and 19 percent uncommitted.

Multi-millionaire former banker Turnbull, 61, is looking to bolster his power after ousting fellow Liberal Tony Abbott in a party coup last September and he cast his vote at a school near his Sydney harborside mansion.

“Win the election,” a boy yelled out as he stuffed his voting form in the ballot box, to which Turnbull replied: “Thank you, we are working on it.”

Ex-union chief Shorten, 49, is gunning to return Labor to office after it was thumped by the conservatives at the last election in 2013.

“What will decide this election is what is in the best interests for working and middle class Australia,” he said in a last-ditch bid to rally undecided voters to his platform of better health, jobs and education.

Unexpected headwinds

Turnbull has campaigned on tough asylum-seeker policies, a plan to hold a plebiscite on gay marriage, and his economic credentials as the country transitions from a mining investment boom and focuses on job creation and diversifying the economy.

He has also channeled the instability sparked by Britain’s shock vote to leave the European Union, warning Australia must “have the plan that meets the nature of our times, a time of opportunity and of challenge.”

According to the official #ausvotes Twitter feed, the most tweeted issues during the campaign have been healthcare, the economy, education and housing affordability and voters in Sydney said they expected a tight contest.

“There’s been a lot of disunity in the last couple of years (in Australia),” voter Sarah Lander told Agence France-Presse, referring to the country’s revolving door of prime ministers.

“With what’s going on in the world, with the UK (Brexit) and terrorism, why wouldn’t you want to stick with what you know?”

Turnbull called an election early because crossbenchers hold the balance of power in the upper house Senate.

They have failed to pass deadlocked legislation to overhaul unions, which provided the trigger for a double dissolution of parliament, where all seats in the upper and lower houses are contested. AFP

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