CANBERRA • Australia’s government said it will see out its full term after suffering a voter backlash in a special election in Sydney on Saturday that looks set to cost the conservatives their one-seat majority in parliament.
Independent candidate Kerryn Phelps is still favoured to win the seat vacated by former Prime Minister (PM) Malcolm Turnbull after he was ousted in a Liberal Party coup in August. However, new premier Scott Morrison (picture) saw a glimmer of hope yesterday after Phelps’ lead narrowed to 884 votes, according to the official tally, with postal ballots still being counted.
“If (the gap) gets as close as 100 votes, then an automatic recount is triggered,” Morrison said yesterday. The previous night he had effectively conceded defeat, saying that the result wasn’t unexpected and the government was paying the price for its turmoil.
Treasurer and Liberal Party deputy leader Josh Frydenberg said the government still intends to run its full term — a general election is due in May 2019 — despite the prospect that the ruling coalition will hold just 75 seats in the 150- seat lower house of Parliament.
“We’ve already had some very constructive discussions with the cross-benchers and a number of them have made it very clear that they want the government to run its full term,” Frydenberg told Sky News.
The massive swing against the Liberals, who held Wentworth by a 17.7% margin under Turnbull and have never previously lost the seat, is a blow to Morrison just two months into his tenure.
Morrison said earlier in the week that Australia was open to moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a move widely viewed as an attempt to win over Jewish voters in Wentworth, who make up around 12.5% of the electorate. Morrison denied it was a political ploy, and it appears to have had little effect.
The government’s support for coal and inaction on climate change were key drivers of the protest vote in Wentworth, according to an exit poll conducted by research body the Australia Institute. Some 78% of respondents said the issue had influenced their vote.
Polls show Morrison is on track to lose power to the Bill Shorten-led Labor Opposition in a general election due next year. The PM had warned losing Wentworth would cause “unnecessary instability” by erasing the government’s oneseat majority.
“Morrison doesn’t have much room to manoeuvre, regardless of who wins Wentworth, and he’s going to have to play quite timidly, politically,” said Jill Sheppard, a political analyst at the Australian National University.
But she added that the government could still win an election next year.
“There’s absolutely time for the Liberal Party to turn it around, especially because the Labor Party is really just as unpopular in most parts of the country.” Sheppard said she wouldn’t be surprised to see a hung Parliament, with the balance of power held by an increased number of independent cross-bench MPs.
Senior Opposition Labor Party lawmaker Tony Burke ruled out a bid to oust the government on the back of the Wentworth vote. “To get to a vote of no confidence, you need 76 votes and we want to see a Shorten Labor government elected at a general election,” Burke told ABC TV. Labor holds 69 seats in the lower house.
While minor-party lawmakers have indicated they won’t support any no-confidence motion in the government that may force an early election, the by-election result shows voters are disillusioned with the infighting in the ruling Liberal- National coalition government that’s caused policy paralysis in key areas including energy security and tackling climate change.