Turnbull faces first test of popularity in by-election today

Vote will be a gauge of whether new Aussie PM has begun to lift his party's fortunes

CANBERRA • New Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull faces the first test of his popularity today as his Liberal Party seeks to hold a parliamentary seat in Western Australia in a by-election.

The ballot in Canning was triggered by the death in July of Liberal lawmaker Don Randall, who had represented the district since 2001. The vote will be a gauge of whether Mr Turnbull has already begun to turn around the party's fortunes after ousting Mr Tony Abbott from the top job on Monday.

Opinion polls taken before Mr Abbott's ouster indicated the Liberals would hold the seat, albeit with a greatly reduced margin amid a voter backlash against a government marred by internal divisions and slowing economic growth.

The district is at the heart of a state suffering from a slowdown in mining investment amid falling demand by China for its iron ore, copper and other minerals.

"There's no doubt that Turnbull is a more popular politician than Abbott, so that should help," said Dr Martin Drum, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Notre Dame, who predicts the Liberals will narrowly hold the seat.

"Still, it never looks good to have the chaos of a leadership challenge a few days out from an election, so there may be some voters deterred by that."

Canning, a district with about 100,000 voters, includes the working-class southern fringes of Perth, farmland and the coastal city of Mandurah. Western Austra-lia's unemployment rate rose to 6.1 per cent last month from 3.9 per cent three years ago. The national average is 6.2 per cent.

"There's a bit of hostility towards the federal government by Western Australians, who often feel ignored by Canberra on the other side of the country," Dr Drum said.

Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie, 32, is a former army captain who served on multiple tours of the Middle East. He has pledged to improve road infrastructure and combat an "epidemic" of methamphetamine abuse if elected.

Mr Hastie told reporters after Mr Turnbull's victory that he supported the new leader and did not think the leadership turmoil would have an impact on his election chances.

Labor candidate Matt Keogh, a 33-year-old lawyer who has helped the federal government prosecute white-collar crime, had highlighted Mr Abbott's unpopularity during the campaign, attacking spending cuts and "broken promises".

"What we have really seen is the instability and dysfunction of the government," Mr Keogh said after the ouster of Mr Abbott. "The actions taken by Malcolm Turnbull are not about Australia and they are not about the people of Canning."

While local issues will be a big factor in determining whether the Liberals retain the seat, the result will be scrutinised for signs of a honeymoon bounce for the party since Mr Turnbull took the leadership.

Mr Randall retained the seat in September 2013 with 62 per cent of votes to Labor's 38 per cent, deemed a "safe" margin by the Australian Electoral Commission. That may change to 52 per cent and 48 per cent respectively, according to a Fairfax-Ipsos poll of voters published on Monday before Mr Turnbull won the leadership.

Mr Turnbull, who worked as a political journalist, lawyer and investment banker before entering politics, has about a year to turn around the fortunes of the government before national elections are due. The government has trailed Labor in opinion polls for more than 12 months.

Mr Turnbull is expected to swear in his new Cabinet on Monday.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2015, with the headline 'Turnbull faces first test of popularity in by-election today'. Print Edition | Subscribe