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Jul 1, 2016 9:28 PM

Australians head to the polls in tight election contest

The Associated Press

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — After years of political turmoil, Australians headed to the polls on Saturday with leaders of the nation's major parties each promising to bring stability to a government that has long been mired in chaos.

The election, which pits the conservative coalition government against the center-left Labor Party, caps off an extraordinarily volatile period in the nation's politics. Australian political parties can change their leaders under certain conditions and have done so in recent years with unprecedented frequency. Should Labor win, its leader, Bill Shorten, will become Australia's fifth prime minister in three years.

The so-called revolving-door prime ministership, coupled with global instability wrought by Britain's recent vote to leave the European Union, prompted promises by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that sticking with the status quo was the safer choice.

"In an uncertain world, Labor offers only greater uncertainty," Turnbull warned in one of his final pitches to voters this week. "They have nothing to say about jobs, growth or our economic future."

Labor, meanwhile, has sought throughout the eight-week campaign to cast Turnbull's Liberal Party as deeply divided, with Shorten saying: "You cannot have stability without unity."

Selling stability is a tough job for either party, both of which have been marred by infighting in recent years. Shorten played a key role in ousting two of the Labor Party's own prime ministers in the space of three years, and Turnbull himself ousted Tony Abbott as prime minister in an internal party showdown less than a year ago. Up until 2007, conservative John Howard served as prime minister for nearly 12 years.

Many Aussies who lined up at the polls on Saturday were weary of the constant change.

Morag McCrone, who voted for Labor at a polling station in Sydney, acknowledged her choice could lead to yet another new prime minister, but couldn't bring herself to vote for Turnbull's party.

"Internationally, it's embarrassing," McCrone said of the endless stream of leadership changes. "It's a bit like ancient Rome at times, really."

Sydney resident Beau Reid, who also voted for Labor, agreed.

"I'm getting a little bit sick of it," Reid said. "Not to say that John Howard was a great prime minister, but it was good to have someone who was at the helm for a period that wasn't two (or) three years."

Though the race is tight, polls suggest that Labor won't be able to gain the 21 seats it needs to form a majority government in the 150-seat House of Representatives. Labor currently holds 55 seats, the conservative coalition has 90, and minor parties and independents have five.

Results of Sydney-based market researcher's Newspoll that were published in The Australian newspaper on Saturday showed the coalition leading by 50.5 percent to Labor's 49.5 percent. The Newspoll was based on interviews with 4,135 people conducted between Tuesday and Friday, and has a 3 percentage point margin of error.

Polls have also shown that the public's frustration with Labor and the coalition may prompt an unusually high number of votes for minor parties, such as the Greens. That raises the prospect that neither Labor nor the coalition will end up with enough seats to win an outright majority, resulting in a hung parliament.

The government has focused much of its campaign on a promise to generate jobs and economic growth through tax cuts to big businesses. Economic growth is a key issue for many Australians, who have seen thousands of jobs vanish from the country's once-booming resources sector amid China's industrial slowdown.

Labor has said it will keep the higher tax rates and use the revenue to better fund schools and hospitals.

Same-sex marriage has also emerged as a campaign issue. Turnbull, who personally supports gay marriage despite his party's opposition to it, has promised to hold a national poll known as a plebiscite this year that would ask voters whether the nation should allow same-sex marriage. But governments are not bound by the results of plebiscites, and some conservative lawmakers have said they would vote down a gay marriage bill even if most Australians supported marriage equality.

Labor, which dubbed the plebiscite a waste of taxpayers' money, promises that the first legislation the party will introduce to parliament will be a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.

___ Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.


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