Defection puts Turnbull at risk of minority govt

Senator Cory Bernardi (left) could leave Mr Turnbull with a minority government if he can convince a single Lower House lawmaker to join his new right-wing party.
Senator Cory Bernardi could leave Mr Turnbull with a minority government if he can convince a single Lower House lawmaker to join his new right-wing party.

SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was left teetering on the brink of a minority government yesterday, when a prominent lawmaker quit to form a new conservative party. It was more bad news as Mr Turnbull's popularity ratings plumb new lows.

The defection of Senator Cory Bernardi to form the Australian Conservatives, seven months after Mr Turnbull's Liberal-National coalition claimed an unconvincing election victory, further weakens the centre-right government's hopes of pressing ahead with its legislative agenda.

Mr Bernardi said that he hoped his new party would offer a refuge for disillusioned right-wing members of the coalition at a time when traditional conservative parties are under threat from a shift to the right that has favoured parties like Senator Pauline Hanson's nationalist One Nation.

Mr Turnbull won a razor-thin majority in last July's election. He faces having to cobble together a minority government if Mr Bernardi is able to entice a single lawmaker from the Lower House of Parliament to join his new party.

Mr Bernardi said that he had not yet approached any coalition members and offered only limited support for Mr Turnbull's legislative agenda in the Upper House Senate, where the government is already in the minority.

"It is about lower taxes and... better outcomes for families, fostering enterprise, restricting the scope of government and building society," Mr Bernardi said.

He told reporters in Canberra: "If they put forward good policy, I will support them."

Australia's last minority government was under the Labor Party, between 2010 and 2013 - an unstable period when legislation was frequently blocked and leadership speculation swirled constantly around then Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The socially liberal Prime Minister Turnbull is already deeply unpopular, with an opinion poll on Monday showing support for his coalition at its lowest in more than a year, eight points behind Labor.

Mr Turnbull has struggled to make an impact since he toppled his more conservative predecessor, Mr Tony Abbott, in a party-room coup in September 2015.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2017, with the headline 'Defection puts Turnbull at risk of minority govt'. Print Edition | Subscribe