Labor leader Bill Shorten goes into today's elections having led in the polls and with the blessing of his political hero, writes Rod McGuirk.

Australia's opposition leader said he wants to win today's elections for his Australian political hero.

The death of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke at his Sydney home on Thursday has turned the national focus to the legacy of his centre-left Labor Party government, which modernised the Australian economy from 1983 until 1991.

The immensely popular 89-year-old had given his imprimatur to opposition leader Bill Shorten, who opinion polls suggest is the favourite to win the election. Shorten said yesterday that Hawke had given him his "blessing" when they last met at Hawke's home last week.

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"Bob was generous in his last remarks to me, and he said we were doing really well and he was very proud of me," Shorten told Nine Network television.

"I already feel a responsibility to millions of people to win. But sure, I want to do it for Bob as well. I don't want to let his memory down."

Many commentators believe Hawke's death at such a crucial time in the five-week campaign is a blow to the conservative Liberal Party-led coalition's chances of winning a third three-year term.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday described Hawke as Labor's best prime minister.

"He was beyond politics. All Australians could connect with Bob Hawke," Morrison said. "That I think was his great charm and his great strength and that enabled him to take the country with him on quite a number of important things."

Hawke was Australia's third longest-serving prime minister and the longest-serving Labor prime minister. He was ousted by his own party during a recession in 1991. But the economic reforms he made are often cited as a major reason that Australia has not had a recession since.

Morrison said the election result "is going to be incredibly close."

An opinion poll published in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday showed Labor ahead of the conservatives 51 per cent to 49 per cent. But the difference is within market researcher Ipsos Australia's 2.3 percentage-point margin of error.

The poll was based on a nationwide telephone survey of 1,42 voters this week from Sunday to Wednesday.

Shorten invoked the memory of another Labor hero on Thursday when he made his final campaign pitch in the same western Sydney venue where party leader Gough Whitlam gave what has been remembered as his "It's Time" speech in 1972. "It's Time" was also the campaign slogan. Labor went on to win its first federal election victory since 1946 and Whitlam became a reforming prime minister.

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Morrison accused Labor of indulging in self-congratulation with the reminder of the Whitlam victory.

Whitlam, who died in 2014, is remembered for sweeping reforms including government-funded universal healthcare and free university education. But he is also remembered for financial mismanagement that led to his Government being fired in 1975 by the Australian Governor-General.

Australia votes

More than 16 million Australians are eligible to vote in elections today that are likely to deliver Australia's eighth prime minister in 12 years. Opinion polls suggest conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison will have one of the shortest tenures of the 29 men and one woman who have served in the post since 1901.

Compulsory voting

Australia is one of a few countries that have made voting compulsory. The 91 per cent of eligible voters who cast ballots at the last election in 2016 was the lowest turnout rate since failing to vote became illegal in 1924. Failure to vote without an acceptable excuse attracts an A$20 ($21) fine.

Parties

The ruling conservative Liberal Party was founded in 1944 while its opponent, the centre-left Labor Party, is Australia's oldest. Labor was formed by striking sheep shearers meeting under an Outback tree in 1891. In 65 years of competing at elections, Liberal-led coalitions have been more successful than Labor. The conservatives have ruled for 47 of those years and have been led by the longest and second-longest serving prime ministers in Australian history.

Issues

Opinion polls show climate change is a major concern for Australian voters. Labor has pledged to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2050. The coalition Government has committed to reduce emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent by 2030 and warns that Labor's more ambitious target would wreck the economy. Tax, refugees and Australia's relationship with China are also issues.

Return to stable leadership

Both parties promise that whoever is elected prime minister will lead the country until voters next choose, probably in three years. In the conservatives' six years in office, Liberal lawmakers have dumped two prime ministers and now have a third who has never faced an election as party leader. Labor had a similar record during its previous six years in office. Labor ousted its elected prime minister for his deputy, then fired her to bring him back. Both parties have changed their rules to make dumping a prime minister between elections more difficult.

- AP