Australia PM Turnbull aims for election boost from Super Saturday

Polls show Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's Liberal-National coalition has a chance to win as many as two of the five electorates up for grabs.
Polls show Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's Liberal-National coalition has a chance to win as many as two of the five electorates up for grabs.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

CANBERRA (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is looking for a strong showing for his Liberal-National coalition in special by-elections being held in Australia this weekend as he looks to bolster his leadership ahead of a nationwide election to be held within a year.

Polls show the coalition has a chance to win as many as two of the five electorates up for grabs in the so-called Super Saturday by-elections, the bulk of which have been triggered because incumbent Labor candidates were deemed ineligible due to holding citizenship of other nations at the time of the last election in 2016.

Should Labor lose a seat to the government, it will place pressure on party leader Bill Shorten and give the prime minister bragging rights: The last time an incumbent government won a seat from the opposition in a by-election was 1920.

While Turnbull's coalition marginally trails Labor in national polls, some political pundits say a strong showing may embolden the prime minister to call an election as early as this year, months before it must be held by May.

"There could be significant consequences from these elections," said Nick Economou, a political analyst at Monash University in Melbourne.

"A poor result for Labor may tempt Turnbull to go to the polls as soon as possible to lock the opposition in with an unpopular leader."

Labor, which is campaigning on its promise to bolster health and education spending, holds two of the seats - one in Brisbane's northern fringes and one in rural Tasmania - by a 2.2 per cent margin or less, and Turnbull's government has been campaigning heavily to win them back.


Another electorate the government is aiming to reclaim is in Adelaide, which is held by an independent. It's not contesting the other two Perth-based seats safely held by Labor.

Bolstered by a strengthening economy and surging employment, Turnbull's government has improved its performance in opinion polls this year and has a reasonable chance to win re-election.

The prime minister has shrugged off gaffes that threatened to derail his coalition, including an extramarital affair by his then-deputy Barnaby Joyce, allowing him to better focus voters' attention on his core message of providing economic and defence security.

Still, Turnbull, 63, has downplayed the chances of winning a seat on Saturday and says he remains committed to holding the national ballot next year. He won the last election by only one seat.

"It is very clear that they are close, obviously, but you have to remember that the last time a government won a by-election from the opposition was 100 years ago," Turnbull told reporters on Monday.

A poor showing on Saturday for Labor would weigh heavily on Shorten, 51. Polls show he's less popular than Turnbull as voters' preferred prime minister.

Shorten's personal popularity has been waning with ambitious frontbencher Anthony Albanese tipped as a possible replacement if seats are lost.

Turnbull has framed the weekend polls as a referendum on the government's "jobs and growth" agenda while Labor is campaigning on better health funding.

"What I would like voters to think about as they go to the polling booths on Saturday, is whether or not they want more of the same from Malcolm Turnbull's government, or whether or not they want to see a better government and more improvement," said Shorten.

"Whether or not they want to put hospitals before banks. Pensioners before multi-millionaires. Schools before tax cuts for the top end of town."