The election has been called. What happens next?

Scott Morrison has called a general election and his party and its rivals will campaign for your vote. How does the process work?

Scott Morrison has called a general election for May 21, kicking off a campaign in which both major parties – and a range of independents – vie for your vote. The Prime Minister will go head-to-head with Labor’s Anthony Albanese, who is coming up against a Coalition government that has been in power for the past 10 years.

So, what exactly happens now that the election has been called? And what are the major issues that will divide voters and parties?

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Who’s more popular at the moment?

Exclusive polling for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, conducted by research company Resolve Strategic, shows that while voters liked Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s budget, they didn’t like it enough to vote Morrison their preferred prime minister. The polling has Albanese as preferred for the top job – by 1 per cent.

When it comes to which party people prefer, Labor is now ahead in this poll. Support for the Greens has risen by 1 per cent since the last survey, while voters drifted from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

What’s the caretaker period?

In a general election, people are voting for a member of parliament who will represent their local area. Now that the election has been called, the House of Representatives has been dissolved, and all 151 seats are up for grabs. The party or coalition that commands a majority of seats will then form the government. (A half Senate election will also be held on election day, when 40 seats will be voted on – half of the 72 “original” Senate seats plus two seats each for the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory.)

The caretaker period begins at the time the House is dissolved and continues until there is a clear election result. During an election campaign, government decisions need to continue until a new one is elected and so, by convention, the existing government acts as a “caretaker” to address important administrative and business duties.

Caretaker conventions say the government should avoid making major policy decisions, significant appointments or entering into major contracts or undertakings, including international negotiations and engagements. The reason the caretaker period exists is also so that an incoming government is not committed to major policy decisions by a previous government. Ministers will often seek to clear the decks in the lead-up to an election. For example, the government has made more than 130 appointments to official jobs since March 21.

Once the House of Representatives has been dissolved, writs must be issued within 10 days, but usually are much sooner. A writ is a document commanding an electoral officer to hold an election, and contains dates for the close of rolls, the close of nominations, the polling day and the return of the writs. The Governor-General issues writs for the House of Representatives election and the territories for Senate elections, and the state governors issue writs for the states’ Senate elections.

What are the key dates?

Election day is on Saturday May 21 and polling booths will be open between 8am and 6pm. Polling places are usually located in local schools, church halls or public buildings.

It is compulsory for all Australians over the age of 18 to vote, so if you haven’t already you can register to vote here. Rolls close at 8pm seven days after the writs are issued.

Early voting starts between 21 and 33 days following the issue of writs. If you live overseas or know that you won’t be able to make it to a polling place on election day, you can vote early. There are a range of options for early voting, which include postal voting and in-person early voting. You can find out more about early voting options here.

What key issues are people talking about?

Cost of living is a hot election topic, with Frydenberg announcing a halving of the fuel excise in his federal budget in order to tackle high petrol prices. The Coalition’s tax offset has also targeted lower and middle-income earners, with workers who earn less than $126,000 able to access a one-off $420 payment at tax time. It means they would be entitled to an offset of up to $1500 for singles and up to $3000 for couples from July 1. Albanese, meanwhile, has been championing higher wages to keep up with the cost of living. Affordable housing and childcare were also key elements of Labor’s budget reply, with Albanese saying that Labor’s plan would mean cheaper childcare for more families.

Aged care became an acute issue during the pandemic and the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety shone a light on the crisis in aged care homes. The final report had 148 recommendations that highlighted major institutional issues. As of March 31, 2022 there have been 1934 deaths in aged care since the start of the pandemic, and both parties have put it high on their priority lists. Frydenberg announced during his budget speech that funding for aged care had “doubled”, while Albanese promised Labor would spend an extra $2.5 billion on fixing the aged care sector.

Finally, climate change and investment in renewable resources have emerged as other crucial election issues. The NSW and south-east Queensland floods, the 2019 bushfires and coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef are all events that have informed election promises. Frydenberg announced in his budget speech that Australia was “on the pathway to net zero emissions by 2050″, but there were no significant funding for renewables announced. One of Labor’s five key budget reply points was a promise to establish new energy apprenticeships in renewable industries, and it wants to commit $85 million to scale up reef resilience and land restoration projects.

With 27 per cent of voters still undecided about whether Morrison or Albanese is their preferred prime minister, there is room for gains on both sides during the campaign.

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