Australia govt loses crucial by-election

Independent candidate for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps (front) being congratulated by supporters as she arrives for a Wentworth by-election evening function at North Bondi Life Saving Club, Sydney, yesterday. With 54 per cent of the vote counted last nigh
Independent candidate for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps (front) being congratulated by supporters as she arrives for a Wentworth by-election evening function at North Bondi Life Saving Club, Sydney, yesterday. With 54 per cent of the vote counted last night, Dr Phelps, a prominent doctor and gay rights campaigner, was leading her Liberal opponent, Mr Dave Sharma, by 54 per cent to 46 per cent.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) embracing Liberal candidate Dave Sharma before his concession speech, at the Liberal Party's Wentworth by-election function in Double Bay, Sydney, yesterday.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) embracing Liberal candidate Dave Sharma before his concession speech, at the Liberal Party's Wentworth by-election function in Double Bay, Sydney, yesterday.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Stunning result will cost ruling coalition its one-seat majority in Parliament

Australia's Liberal Party suffered a devastating loss in a crucial by-election yesterday that dealt a heavy blow to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and will cost the ruling coalition its one-seat majority in Parliament.

In a stunning result, independent candidate Kerryn Phelps won the by-election in the Sydney seat of Wentworth, an electorate that has been held by the Liberal Party, or its conservative predecessors, throughout its 117-year history.

With 54 per cent of the vote counted last night, Dr Phelps, a prominent doctor and gay rights campaigner, was leading her Liberal opponent, Mr Dave Sharma, by 54 per cent to 46 per cent.

The result leaves the ruling Liberal-National coalition without a clear majority in Parliament, though it will likely be able to rely on the support of cross-bench MPs to avoid a no-confidence vote.

Declaring victory last night, Dr Phelps said the contest had been a "David and Goliath struggle".

"This win tonight should signal a return of decency, integrity and humanity to the Australian Parliament," she said.

  • Impact of election loss

  • •With 54 per cent of votes counted, the Liberal party was due to lose to an independent by 54 per cent to 46 per cent.

    •The loss leaves the Liberal-National Coalition with 75 MPs in the 150-member House of Representatives.

    •Prime Minister Scott Morrison will need to rely on cross-bench MPs to avoid a no-confidence vote.

    •The swing against the government of about 22 per cent is the biggest ever in an Australian by-election.

    Jonathan Pearlman

The result places intense pressure on Mr Morrison, whose party will grow nervous ahead of a general election, due early next year.

Mr Morrison became prime minister just two months ago after his party ousted its former leader, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, following a bitter internal battle.

After he was effectively ousted as leader, Mr Turnbull resigned from Parliament, prompting yesterday's election in Wentworth, where he was a popular figure.

Admitting that "Liberals are angry", Mr Morrison said Mr Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel, was a strong candidate and not to blame for the party's loss.

"Tonight is a night when we listen, learn and accept the blows," he said. "The Liberal Party has paid a big price tonight for the events of several months ago. But as a party, we will continue to rise again."

Mr Turnbull's son Alex, who lives in Singapore and had urged voters to abandon his father's Liberal party, praised the "incredible result". "A great day for Australian democracy," he said in a tweet.

Earlier this week, Mr Morrison made a sudden announcement that he would consider following United States President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

DAVID AND GOLIATH

This win tonight should signal a return of decency, integrity and humanity to the Australian Parliament.

DR KERRYN PHELPS, who won the Sydney seat of Wentworth, an electorate that has been held by the Liberal party, or its conservative predecessors, throughout its 117-year-history.

The move, which angered Palestinians and was immediately criticised by Indonesia, was seen as a desperate attempt to appeal to the sizeable Jewish vote in Wentworth. But the ploy failed.

Voters in Wentworth, a conservative-leaning seat with large Jewish and gay communities, appeared to be motivated by concerns about the Liberal Party's disunity and Mr Turnbull's ousting, as well as the party's reticence to take action to combat climate change.

Following a United Nations report released earlier this month outlining the grave risks of a failure to curb carbon emissions, the government insisted it would not move to quickly phase out coal power.

Mr Morrison said the nation would easily meet its internationally agreed emissions targets, though experts said this would not occur without new measures to move away from fossil fuels.

Ms Deborah Frankie, a supporter of Dr Phelps, said she believed voter concerns about climate change had swung the election. "The Liberal Party needs to wake up to that," she told The Australian.

 
 
 

Political commentator David Crowe said the result would leave the party desperate, divided and difficult to lead. "This was a swift and savage message to Scott Morrison that puts him in a diabolical position in Parliament and sets him on course for catastrophe at the next election," he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"The Prime Minister now faces an immense challenge in running the government... Worse, he governs with an unsteady party room of Liberal MPs who will bicker over anything and make their leader's job impossible."

The deputy leader of the Labor opposition party, Ms Tanya Plibersek, urged the coalition to hold an early election. "The best thing they could do is hold an election so the Australian people can make their minds up," she told Sky News. "Put this government out of its misery."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 21, 2018, with the headline 'Australia govt loses crucial by-election'. Print Edition | Subscribe