SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged on Sunday (Oct 21) that his embattled government would serve out a full term despite the conservative coalition looking set to lose its majority after a voter backlash in a crucial Sydney by-election.
The Liberal-National coalition, which has a one-seat parliamentary majority, appeared headed for minority government status after a huge swing in a traditionally safe seat, fuelled by anger over the ousting of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
But despite the Liberal candidate conceding defeat on Saturday after high-profile independent Kerryn Phelps captured an apparently unsurmountable lead in the seat of Wentworth, the count has narrowed sharply as postal votes are counted.
Dr Phelps' lead with more than 54 per cent under Australia's voting system - which allocates voters' second preferences if no candidate secures a majority - shrank Sunday to just 50.61 per cent, or 884 votes over her Liberal rival.
While most analysts said it appeared likely Dr Phelps would hold on to the win, Prime Minister Scott Morrison struck a more upbeat tone.
"If it (the margin) gets as close as 100 then an automatic recount is triggered under the normal rules," Mr Morrison told reporters. "I am not saying it will get to that."
The prime minister, who must call national elections by mid-May, acknowledged voter anger over political infighting in Canberra but said he was determined to stay on even if the coalition becomes a minority government.
"Australian people expect governments to serve their term. We are elected to serve our term and that is what we are going to do," he said.
The by-election in the wealthy seat was triggered after Mr Turnbull, the local MP, resigned after being toppled in a party coup in August.
Mr Turnbull had held the seat with a comfortable margin of 18 per cent, but support for the Liberals tumbled over his treatment.
Mr Morrison signalled he was winning to work with minor parties and independents to address what Dr Phelps said would be the first item on her agenda - removing refugee children held in Australian detention camps on the Pacific island nation of Nauru.
Canberra sends asylum-seekers who try to reach the country by boat to remote Pacific facilities including on Nauru to deter them from trying to come to Australia.
There has been growing international and domestic pressure on Mr Morrison to move the children to Australia amid reports they are suffering from serious health problems.
A final count for Wentworth might be declared only after the Nov 2 deadline for postal votes has passed.