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Australia heads to polls Saturday, could elect fifth PM in three years

In the midst of global political confusion triggered from Brexit, Australians face their own decision between continuity and disruptive change. 

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    Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses young Liberals during a rally at Robotic Automation in the Sydney suburb of Newington, July 1, 2016 on the eve of Australia's federal elections.
    Lukas Coch/AAP/Reuters
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Australians go to the polls Saturday with the opposition leader vying to become the country's fifth prime minister in three years. Global market turmoil since the Brexit vote, Australia's success in turning back asylum seeker boats, gay marriage, housing prices, corporate tax rates and union corruption have been major issues in the eight-week campaign.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has urged Australians to vote for continuity and stability by re-electing his conservative coalition which dumped the country's last prime minister less than a year ago.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten, who played a key role in his center-left Labor Party ousting two of its own prime ministers in the space of three years, says the government remains deeply divided and that Labor is the stable option.

"Mr. Turnbull says this is the time for stability. You cannot have stability without unity," Shorten said this week.

Polling suggests that Labor will gain some seats in the election, but not the 21 needed to form a majority government in the 150-seat House of Representatives. Labor currently holds 55 seats, the coalition 90 and five seats are held by minor parties or independents.

The government has promised to generate jobs and economic growth through tax cuts to big business, while Labor says it will keep the higher tax rates and use the revenue to better fund schools and hospitals.

There has been little change in opinion polls during the eight-week election campaign, and some observers say uninterested voters have switched off.

Deakin University political expert Geoff Robinson said both sides have been campaigning on their traditional strengths – the conservatives regarded as better economic managers and Labor more generous on health and schools.

Robinson said although Turnbull had disappointed many who had hoped for more progressive leadership since he replaced the socially conservative and polarizing Tony Abbott as prime minister in September, the public mood was to give Turnbull more time.

"Although the initial burst of enthusiasm for him wore off fairly quickly, people don't actively dislike him," Robinson said.

"He's got that amenable, middle-of-the- road style. I think that appeals to a lot of voters," he said.

A television ad by the ruling Liberal Party reflected the possible mood of an electorate that did not love the government in its first term, but was not yet ready to toss it out.

"I reckon we should just see it through and stick with the current mob for a while," a welder on a construction site says in urging the government's re-election.

While commentators accused the government of damning itself with faint praise, Turnbull described the ad as "a call for continued stability."

Turnbull told a campaign rally this week that his government provides the "calm heads, steady hands and a strong economic plan" that Australia needs following the shocks to global markers caused by Britain voting to leave the European Union.

Labor accuses Turnbull, a 61-year-old self-made multi-millionaire worth an estimated AU$150 million ($110 million), of being "seriously out of touch" with ordinary Australians.

The government accuses Shorten, a 49-year-old former union boss, of inciting divisive and outdated class warfare.

Those battle lines include Labor's plan to reduce tax breaks on real estate to make it a less attractive investment for landlords, which the government warns would cause property prices to tumble, damaging the economy.

As in many countries, same-sex marriage has become a campaign issue, with the opposition saying that under a Shorten government legislation allowing same-sex marriage would quickly be put to the Parliament.

If re-elected, Turnbull's government would ask the Australian public to vote on the issue in a plebiscite.

Both the government and opposition have promised to maintain Australia's tough stance against asylum seekers, which has prevented any refugees from reaching the Australian mainland by bloat for two years.

Ostensibly, Turnbull called the election because a hostile senate refused to pass legislation allowing the government to create a building industry watchdog called the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The commission was disbanded in 2012 by a former Labor government linked to the trade union movement.

While the plight of the commission may be an obscure issue to most voters, the debate focuses attention on Shorten's history as a union official, which exposed him to allegations of corruption. He has denied any wronging.

Turnbull has assured voters that the revolving door to the prime minister's office was now shut, and says if he wins he will stand again for re-election as prime minister when the next election is due in 2019.

"I'm making that commitment and that prediction and only time will tell," he told The National Press Club this week.

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