Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull before a debate during the interminable campaign. Photo by Mick Tsikas - Pool/Getty Images)

Australia votes: the five-minute guide to today’s knife-edge election

The long, long, long campaign has come to an end. Miss anything? Fear not: in a dispatch from Sydney, Elle Hunt breaks down everything you need to know.

While New Zealanders have been shivving each other for avocados and living in abandoned cruise ships, Australia has been weathering its longest campaign since 1969. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called for an election on 7 May. Eight weeks later, it’s election day, and Australians are tired. So tired.

But you don’t need to have been covering the ins and interminable outs of the campaign in order to feel included and abreast of tonight’s result. Here’s what you need to know …

1. It’s understood to be incredibly close – neck-and-neck, really – between the two major parties

Those are Turnbull’s conservative Coalition of the Liberal Party and the National Party, currently in government, and Bill Shorten’s Labor Party in opposition. When the campaign began, the two were tied 50-50 in the polls. 56 days later, they’re basically still tied, with the recent Essential poll putting the Coalition at 50.5% to Labor’s 49.5%.

Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull shake hands before a debate at the start of the campaign, way back in the distant past. Photo by Mick Tsikas/Pool/Getty

Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull shake hands before a debate at the start of the campaign, way back in the distant past. Photo by Mick Tsikas/Pool/Getty

Labor has been pushing its “100 positive policies” to lower- and middle-class Australians while the Coalition presents itself as sensible economic managers. After years of almost comical instability from both sides – Australia has had five PMs since 2007, including Kevin Rudd twice – both leaders have been very keen to present their parties as united fronts, and have managed to do so with intermittent success.

2. The campaign has been remarkable for not only its duration, but its dullness

Of course individual mileages vary – if you’re a diehard politico, it may have been thrilling. But, looking back on the campaign, many pundits (at least, this pundit) agree there have been few peaks but a sort of persistent low-level trough.

The first three weeks were dominated by debate of the government’s budget, which was announced before the election date was even set. The Coalition has managed to go the distance more or less without announcing any new policies. The leaders have been on-message to a fault, Turnbull in particular answering any question, on any subject, at any point, with either “jobs and growth” or “This is the most exciting time to be an Australia”, which, well, huge if true, as we say in the news media.

The tedium of the campaign was evident from the enthusiasm, even glee with which journalists pursued the possibility that a tradesman who gave a comically bad performance in a television ad for the Coalition may have been an actor. He wasn’t.

3. The big issues have been the economy …

The two parties differ most significantly on their approaches to spending. As he states – frequently, sometimes not even in complete sentences – Turnbull’s priorities in government are “jobs and growth”, which he believes will come with careful management of the economy and a return to surplus.

Labor has taken the view that you have to spend money to make money, proposing greater investment on infrastructure, education, broadband and other areas to boost productivity and living standards. Shorten insists that his ten-year economic plan will require more spending in the short term, but result in a return to surplus at the same time as slated by the Coalition; Turnbull says he’s spending money he hasn’t got.

His finance minister, Scott Morrison, tried to tot up Labor’s policies to highlight their irresponsible expenditure and reached a total of $67bn, with a margin of error of $35bn. He later said it was a tactic to “flush out” the truth from Labor, which basically tells you all you need to know about the depths this debate has, at points, plumbed.

4. … Medicare …

About halfway through the campaign, Labor hitched its wagon to Medicare, the public healthcare scheme, vowing to end the Coalition’s six-year freeze on increases to the Medicare rebate at a cost of $12.2bn over the decade – the biggest policy commitment of the campaign.

Turnbull dismissed it as unfunded spending by a party that struggles with economic forecasting, but Labor’s defense of Medicare has come to define its (some might say, scare) campaign – from what, exactly, it’s not always been clear. Shorten says, under a Coalition government, Medicare could be privatised; Turnbull has said repeatedly it won’t. This argument, equivalent to banging your head against a wall for a prolonged period, was revisited several times.

5. … and marriage equality …

Despite polls showing fairly widespread support for same-sex marriage within the Australian public, conservative forces within the Coalition have prevented it from coming down to a vote, even though Turnbull’s on the record as being in support. Labor has made marriage equality a cornerstone of its campaign, vowing to make it law within the first 100 days of a Shorten government.

Turnbull, having to assuage opponents of same-sex marriage within his own party, has committed to a plebiscite (a non-binding referendum) on the issue to gauge support as soon as possible after the Coalition is re-elected. What this means in practice, it’s hard to say. Because the result is only advisory, it will be followed by a vote in parliament, prompting the question of why have a plebiscite at all. In recent weeks, several known opponents to same-sex marriage on Turnbull’s frontbench have strenuously refused to be drawn on whether they’ll vote in accordance with the result of the plebiscite – a bit of a blow to the united front.

6. But ending offshore detention has hardly got a look-in, despite being appalling …

The Coalition likes to paint Labor as weak on border protection – an issue Australians hold close to their hearts; so much for “boundless plains to share” – with Turnbull going on the offensive on “stopping the boats” in the early weeks of the campaign. It was taken a mite too far by his immigration minister, Peter Dutton, who tried to accuse “illiterate and innumerate” refugees of simultaneously stealing Australian jobs and languishing on welfare, a statement that was rightly met with widespread outrage.

But the truth is, the two major parties’ policies on immigration are fairly similar, and overlap entirely on the issues of boat turnbacks and offshore processing. Labor is proposing an increase to the humanitarian intake of refugees, as well as greater oversight of the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. But only the Greens are committed to closing the camps, even though the “atrocity” that goes on there has been widely documented.

7. … nor has the Great Barrier Reef, despite being basically doomed

Climate change hasn’t got much of a look-in this campaign, though both Labor and the Coalition have targets for targeting greenhouse emissions and different policies for reaching them. But despite the best combined efforts of environmental groups and Ellen De Generes (in Finding Dory-promo-mode) – and though both Shorten and Turnbull made trips up there during the campaign – saving the Great Barrier Reef has not been high priority for either party.

Almost a quarter of the reef was killed by warm waters this year, the worst bleaching event on record, and scientists believe it will cost $10bn over the next decade to give it a fighting chance. The Coalition has actively downplayed the damage to the reef, and while Labor has promised to do significantly more to save it, it has not gone far enough.

8. As much as neither party wants to admit it, the balance of power could be held by minor parties and independents

Shorten and Turnbull are united in their distaste for even the idea of doing deals post-election with minor parties, independents and even the Greens. Both want to win by enough of a majority to prevent a hung parliament and maximise their numbers in the Upper House. This is a double dissolution election, meaning all 150 House of Representatives seats and 76 Senate seats are up for grabs, and the ballot paper itself is now about an arm and a leg long and parties gather outside polling booths to hand out brochures, or “how to vote cards”, that literally explain how to vote for them because it is just that difficult.

With polls showing a significant undecided vote, support for the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), Jacqui Lambie in Tasmania, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in Queensland and David Leyonhjelm in New South Wales remains the unknown factor. Xenophon in particular may hold the balance of power in either House. Today may be election day, but the actual process of forming a government could drag on for a while yet.

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