Make-or-break test for Australian government in weekend by-election

Election posters of Liberal candidate Dave Sharma and independent candidate Kerryn Phelps are seen on a street in the seat of Wentworth in Sydney on Oct 18, 2018.
Election posters of Liberal candidate Dave Sharma and independent candidate Kerryn Phelps are seen on a street in the seat of Wentworth in Sydney on Oct 18, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's embattled centre-right government faces a make-or-break test this weekend, with by-election voters in Sydney's wealthy beachside suburbs apparently poised to wipe out Prime Minister Scott Morrison's slender parliamentary majority.

Polls show the government losing in Wentworth on Saturday (Oct 20) and with it their one-seat parliamentary majority, in what has been described as the most consequential by-election in modern Australian history.

Defeat in the once safe Liberal seat would be a huge embarrassment for Mr Morrison - whose two-month tenure as prime minister has been marked by crisis and party infighting - and would send him limping into next year's general election.

The sprawling constituency takes in the famous Bondi Beach and the haunts of stars like Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman.

"It could not come at a worst time for Scott Morrison because sometimes even winning a by-election might not be enough for a new leader - you have to win it convincingly," politics expert Nick Economou of Monash University told AFP.

Analysts believe a loss and a minority government would derail the Liberals' legislative agenda, make Mr Morrison a virtual lame duck prime minister and perhaps even trigger a vote of no confidence in his premiership.

The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Mr Malcolm Turnbull as an MP after he was turfed out of the prime ministership in a party coup, despite calls for him to stay on and not jeopardise the coalition's hold on power.

 
 

"Since the Turnbull demise, they have really been crumbling before our eyes. They are abandoning policies left, right and centre, a reshuffle has left them all at sea, issues that they were strong on they've lost their way on," said Mr Economou.

Mr Morrison has invested heavily in the vote, appearing multiple times on the stump with Liberal candidate Dave Sharma and upending decades of Australian foreign policy in a desperate bid to woo Wentworth's Jewish voters.

Mr Morrison floated the idea of moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that prompted Palestinian anger and infuriated Australia's Muslim-majority neighbour Indonesia.

Opinion polls show Mr Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel, trailing independent candidate Kerryn Phelps by around 10 points.

Mr Turnbull has been very notably absent from the campaign trail, despite winning the seat by an 18-point margin, but the rest of the Liberal party has thrown the kitchen sink at the contest.

Fears of a collapse in Liberal votes saw former prime minister John Howard, the last leader to serve out a full term, hit the streets of Wentworth on Thursday (Oct 18) in a plea to "grumpy Liberal voters" not to abandon their party.

"This is really pretty desperate politics," former Liberal party leader and a former member for Wentworth, Mr John Hewson, told AFP.

"They just want to win at all costs, they don't care what they do to do that, which will also probably feed people's discontent with the government generally. So it's a big call on their part to run it that way."

The campaign has seen voters express anger at infighting and navel-gazing in Canberra and the rising cost of living while wages stagnate.

"The people who are disenchanted are not just those who are doing it hard economically," Professor Joseph Camilleri of La Trobe University told AFP.

"It also includes those who feel their views or interests have been ignored... We have had for some time a government that moves from one short-term tactical objective to another without any clear narrative as to where Australia is and where it might be heading."

Dr Phelps - who is gay - has campaigned on national issues such as tackling climate change and Australia's treatment of asylum-seekers, appearing to gain traction in a traditionally moderate liberal seat.

Getting rid of the prime minister has become something of a national sport in Australia - with six changes of leader in the last decade - Mr Morrison will be hoping the Wentworth vote does not make him the next victim.