Australia's election, a campaign across a continent

Bowen (Australia) (AFP) –


With constituencies the size of Iran, South Africa and France, Aussie voters have always been a diverse bunch, but the current election campaign has revealed this vast country's politics is fracturing along regional lines.

In just 48 hours on the campaign trail this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison travelled 8,000 kilometres (4,970 miles) -- the same distance as London to Beijing.

From cosmopolitan Sydney to the dusty Outback, Morrison -- like his Labor rival Bill Shorten -- is jetting around trying to pick up disgruntled voters.

"The Australian electorate is extraordinarily unusual. It's a vast continent, it's a relatively small population so it's spread out," University of Sydney politics expert Marc Stears told AFP.

Imagine a US presidential race taking place across a country the size of America, but one less populated than Texas.

"It has big cities but then it has very small rural communities, often having very little to do with each other," said Stears. "And the politicians have to go right across this country trying to find votes in every different part of it."

For the traditional parties from right and left, campaigning is not just time-consuming, but increasingly fruitless.

- 'All politics is local' -

Like the United States and Europe, political loyalties have waned in recent years in the face of wrenching social and technological changes.

A succession of leadership changes in Canberra has also fuelled the perception politicians are self-serving and helped to spark a rise in minor parties and independents.

Two decades ago, 80 percent of voters backed one of the major parties but that support has fallen off, said the University of Sydney's Stephen Mills.

Now, up to one-third of voters shun the big parties.

In conservative-leaning Queensland state, disillusioned voters are moving further right to support the anti-immigration One Nation Party and mining magnate Clive Palmer's United Australia Party.

Both promise to back mining and local jobs -- key concerns in struggling Outback towns where unemployment is high and townsfolk feel ignored by politicians.

"That's what we are famous for, saying the things that people are thinking, saying the things that people are saying," One Nation's Malcolm Roberts told AFP in central Queensland of his party's attraction.

"That is why the failed old parties are being abandoned."

Further north in Bowen, a regional town neighbouring a coal port, businesses are angry with the major parties' perceived dithering over approving a major mine that promises thousands of jobs.

"Country areas are doing it very tough," Bowen Chamber of Commerce chairman Bruce Hedditch told AFP.

"I think this is one of the reasons why the minor parties and the independents are going to do quite well in this forthcoming election... because the people of Australia have no faith in the major political parties."

- Stop Adani, Start Adani -

Urban opposition to the mine, to be developed by India's Adani, is a clear example of the delicate balancing act facing the Liberal-Nationals and Labor.

Both sides are battling for votes in marginal seats in Queensland and in climate-conscious Victorian electorates where the mine is strongly opposed -- with the seats lost or gained in the states tipped to swing the election either way.

The Liberal-Nationals are more vocal in supporting the mine, but face a backlash from Victorian colleagues afraid of losing seats.

Shorten has sidestepped the issue in Queensland as he seeks to pick up progressives' votes in Victoria while not angering pro-mine union backers.

In Bowen, the disparate views are clear to see.

A short distance from Hedditch's pub, members of the anti-fossil fuel group Frontline Action on Coal travelled from across Australia -- including the cities and regional coastal towns where climate change concerns have gained traction -- to hold a protest at the port's entrance.

In Sydney, climate sceptic and former Liberal PM Tony Abbott, who once said evidence blaming mankind for climate change was "absolute crap", is being targeted by "Stop Adani" campaigners.

Abbott, who holds his affluent seat of Warringah by a large margin, is facing a strong challenge from independent candidate Zali Steggall who campaigns on climate action.

Some 15 independent candidates -- many running in regional seats to capitalise on fed-up voters of the rural-focused Nationals -- have banded together to produce a video proclaiming "political parties have failed us".

The fracturing of the voting public has contributed to expectations Saturday's poll will be close, with a record number enrolled to vote.

All the major parties can hope for is to secure more wins than losses, said Australian National University professor John Warhurst.

"You can't please everybody... ultimately, there's a certain amount of hard calculation that you win more than you lose by taking a particular position," he told AFP.