With the polls tightening in the final days of the election campaign, both major parties are preparing for a tight contest on Saturday.
Labor, after carrying the scars of the 2019 loss which it was widely expected to win, is being more cautious about predicting wins from the Liberal party this time round.
But Labor is desperately hoping the widespread anti-Morrison sentiment is enough to deliver it government under a “safe change” strategy that has seen the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, adopt a small-target approach and run a low-key campaign.
The magic number for majority government is 76 seats in the 151-seat House of Representatives.
Labor holds a notional 69 seats, so needs a net gain of seven seats for a majority government, but could form minority government if it wins just five. The Coalition holds only 75 seats after the defection of the United Australia party leader, Craig Kelly, to the crossbench, so also needs to win seats to maintain its majority.
The Coalition has thrown the kitchen sink at trying to shore up its position, and believes there remains a narrow path to victory if it can win seats off the Labor party.
Everything will need to go right for the Coalition for it to remain in government, and it is hoping that undecided voters will choose to stick with the devil they know when they vote on Saturday.
Only one thing is for certain – this election will throw up new quirks and trends that are not yet known, as we emerge from a once-in-a-century pandemic that has seen voters across Australia live very different experiences.
So what are the possible scenarios – and seats – that may determine the victor on election night?
Labor majority government
If the swing is on and voters decide it’s time to boot the Morrison government, then Labor will expect to pick up seats in every state.
The seats most likely to fall to Labor in this scenario are Pearce and Swan in Western Australia, Boothby in South Australia, Chisholm and Higgins in Victoria, Reid, Robertson and possibly Bennelong in New South Wales, Bass and Braddon in Tasmania, and Brisbane, Longman and Leichhardt in Queensland.
Winning these 13 seats, which would give Labor a comfortable majority of 82, is an optimistic scenario, and both sides say it is unlikely all of these Coalition-held seats will fall.
For comparison, it is worth noting that in the 2007 “Ruddslide” election, Labor secured 83 of the House of Representatives’s 150 seats after being comfortably ahead in the polls against John Howard in the run up to polling day.
Labor’s primary vote in the election-eve Newspoll in 2007 was 46%, compared with 41% for the Coalition. Ahead of this election, Labor’s primary vote in the Guardian Essential poll is at 35% compared with 36% for the Coalition, making the result much more difficult to predict.
A more realistic scenario is that Labor wins some – but not all – of these Coalition-held seats, and is able to win the seven seats needed to govern in its own right.
While a narrow Labor majority government is the most likely outcome based on current polling numbers, it is by no means guaranteed.
Labor minority government
If Labor can hang on to all of its seats, but can only secure five of the above-mentioned seats, it can be confident of forming minority government.
The five seats the Labor party is most confident about winning are Pearce, Swan, Boothby, Chisholm and Reid.
If it can get across the line in these five key marginals, then it would have a total of 74 seats – two short of the magic number.
In this scenario, Labor would be confident of securing support from the Greens MP Adam Bandt and Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie to deliver minority government.
While Albanese has ruled out doing any deals with the Greens, Bandt has released his seven key demands for backing a Labor government.
Winning five seats and not losing any of those it already holds is the worst Labor can do and still be confident of forming government.
Coalition majority government
If the Coalition can sandbag seats and limit its losses, and pick up seats from Labor elsewhere, then there remains a small chance that the Liberals and Nationals can remain in majority government.
Let’s say Labor wins the five seats above – Pearce, Swan, Boothby, Chisholm and Reid – then the Coalition’s numbers have been reduced to 70, compared with Labor’s 74.
But the Coalition has been aggressively targeting the Labor-held marginal seats of Gilmore, Corangamite, McEwen, Hunter, Parramatta, Lyons and Lingiari, with a notable focus on outer-suburban and regional areas. It is also expected to win back the seat of Hughes from Kelly.
For each of these Labor seats that the Coalition can win – if any – the opposition would need to find another Coalition-held seat further up the pendulum to ensure it could form government.
If Labor wins all five of its most likely target seats, but the Coalition can win five of these seven target seats from Labor, the Coalition retains its 76-seat majority (assuming it wins back Hughes).
This would be an extraordinary result for the Coalition and while it is a more unlikely scenario it is certainly a possibility.
Any combination of the above could also see the Coalition maintain its majority – providing it offsets any losses with the same number of gains elsewhere.
This scenario could be helped by the allocation of United Australia and One Nation preferences, which in some marginal seats are being directed to the Coalition.
It’s worth noting, though, that minor party preferences only have a limited impact on the result given voters don’t always follow how to vote recommendations, and will only matter in tight contests.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, says he is aiming for a majority government, but this is an unlikely scenario given the pressure the Coalition faces both in marginal seats and so-called teal seats.
Coalition minority government
If Labor falls short of a net gain of five seats, then the Coalition could potentially form a minority government.
If Labor wins four seats, it would have more seats than the Coalition on 73, compared with 72 for the Liberals and Nationals (providing the Liberals win back Hughes, but nothing else).
While Labor would be confident of winning over Bandt and Wilkie, it is possible that the remaining four MPs on the crossbench could back in the Coalition.
Rebekha Sharkie, the MP for the seat of Mayo, has indicated that she would be more likely to back the Coalition in the event of a hung parliament, while Zali Steggall has suggested she would be more likely to support the Liberal party if Morrison was dumped.
Bob Katter and Helen Haines have not declared who they would back in the event of a hung parliament, but given they both come from traditionally conservative electorates, they are seen as more likely to back the Coalition.
Of course, this scenario is based on the crossbench of the 46th parliament staying the same after the election. Given there are many seats where other independents are seen as a strong chance of success, the crossbench could well look different after Saturday’s poll.
There are at least five “teal” independents who have a strong chance of winning seats from the Liberal party, and none of these have indicated who they would support in the event of a hung parliament. The Greens could also pick up another seat from either Labor or the Liberal party, as could regional independents targeting Liberal and National MPs.
The more independents elected in place of Liberal MPs, the more difficult it will be for the Coalition to remain in government – either minority or majority – regardless of the traditional political alignment of the seat.
When will we know the result?
If the election is tight, then it is possible we will not know the result on Saturday.
The Australian Electoral Commission does not start counting postal votes until Sunday morning, and at this election more than 2.5 million people have requested postal votes from the AEC so far.
In the event of a hung parliament, the result may not be known for many days – or even weeks as negotiations with independents take place. In 2010, it took 17 days before crossbench MPs decided to support Julia Gillard as prime minister.
Traditionally, the winner waits until receiving a concession call from their opponent before declaring victory on election night.
Both Albanese and Morrison will have their phones at the ready.