Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he was confident his Liberal/National coalition could form a majority, but opposition Labor leader Bill Shorten said his opponent had lost the people’s mandate for his agenda.
Seventy-six seats are needed to rule outright in the 150-seat House of Representatives, but there was a swing against the government, results showed, as vote counting went deep into the night with a final outcome not expected until next week.
National broadcaster ABC forecast the Labor opposition would hold 70 seats or less and the government could fall short of a majority by one seat, with 75, despite being backed by the nation’s media.
Some seven hours after most polling booths closed, the Australian Electoral Commission had Turnbull’s coalition on 71 seats to 68 for Labor, with crossbenchers — politicians who are independent or from minor parties — winning five.
It could mean a parliament where no side commands a lower house majority, as voters fed up with traditional politicians look for alternatives, meaning the crossbenchers would play an important role in forming government.
Despite this, Turnbull, a multi-millionaire former banker who was looking to bolster his power after ousting fellow Liberal Tony Abbott in a party coup last September, insisted that with millions of postal votes still to be counted, he could still get over the line.
“I can report that based on the advice I have from the party officials, we can have every confidence that we will form a coalition majority government in the next parliament,” said the 61-year-old.
“Certainly we are the only parties that have the ability or the possibility of doing that.”
The government went into the election with a large majority of seats, with Turnbull calling the polls early because crossbenchers hold the balance of power in the upper house Senate.
The crossbenchers had 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.
‘Lost their mandate’
It is highly unlikely Labor can form a government, but ex-union chief Shorten was buoyant following such a close call as his party bounced back strongly after being thumped by the conservatives at the last election in 2013.
“There is one thing for sure — the Labor party is back,” he said, as election officials pointed to Tuesday as the likely day when a final outcome is known.
“Three years after the Liberals came to power in a landslide, they have lost their mandate,” added the 49-year-old to cheering supporters in Melbourne after he campaigned hard on health and education.
“Mr Turnbull will never be able to claim that the people of Australia have adopted his ideological agenda.”
The vote culminated in a marathon race where economic management became a key issue in the wake of the Brexit verdict.
Turnbull had 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 also channelled 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 were healthcare, the economy, education and housing affordability.
Frank Mosca, a Liberal supporter at the party’s election function in Sydney, said he was a “little disappointed” at the results so far.
“I think the scare campaign (that the government would cut the public healthcare service Medicare) obviously worked,” Mosca told AFP.
“Obviously it resonated with a lot of people more than the Liberals thought. I think Mr Turnbull needed to get out on the front foot and not let that happen (it’s) not the best campaign.”