Australia’s embattled conservative coalition was dealt a spectacular defeat Saturday in a crucial by-election two months after it turfed out its latest prime minister, sending it into a minority government.
The poll in the wealthy Sydney seat of Wentworth was triggered after former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull of the Liberal Party was ousted in the party coup in August — the sixth change of national leaders in the last decade.
The result snuffs out the Liberal-National coalition’s one-seat majority and sends the country into yet another period of political instability ahead of national elections that have to be called by mid-May next year.
The Australian Electoral Commission said with almost 40 percent of the vote in Wentworth counted, high-profile independent candidate Kerryn Phelps was leading 54.34% compared to 45.66% for the Liberals’ Dave Sharma under Australia’s system of preferential voting.
“I think we can say that Kerryn Phelps will win the Wentworth by-election and this has been a pretty bad result for the Liberal Party,” respected veteran analyst Antony Green of national broadcaster ABC said.
It is the biggest-ever swing in a by-election against a sitting government.
At the heart of voter discontent in the traditional Liberal seat, which was held by Turnbull by an 18% margin, was widespread frustration about the leadership merry-go-round and constant infighting in Canberra.
“What we have done is tapped into a sentiment in the Australian people, to talk about the issues that are important to them, not the issues about survival for a particular political party,” Phelps told supporters during her victory speech.
“It was said if we won the seat of Wentworth, it would make history, and, my friends, we have made history today.”
Turnbull’s successor Scott Morrison told supporters at an evening campaign event for Liberal candidate Dave Sharma as he conceded defeat that his party would keep fighting on.
“Liberals are angry and they’ve expressed that,” Morrison 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.”
While the result is ominous for the ruling coalition, which is battling poor polls and strong competition from the main Labor opposition party, the wealth of Wentworth also makes the electorate unique.
Analysts have told AFP next year’s elections would be more likely to fought in less moneyed marginal seats in outer city suburbs and regional areas, where the focus is on bread and butter issues such as tackling the high cost of living.
Voting is compulsory in Australia but the buzz around the polling stations was unusual for Wentworth, with dozens of volunteers from different parties inundating voters with leaflets for their candidates earlier Saturday after polls opened.
“I’ve done over 20 elections and this is the first time at [8 a.m.] we’ve had a queue,” Liberal Party volunteer Kevin Berry told national broadcaster ABC. “It’s quite extraordinary the level of interest in the election this time around.”
Wentworth resident Roslyn Taylor said she was frustrated with politicians and the chaos that has plagued the main parties in recent years.
“None of them have really got their mind on the job. None of them have got their mind on the people — the true needs of the people in terms of education, in terms of health,” she told AFP outside a polling booth at Bondi Beach.
The sprawling Sydney constituency takes in the famous beach, as well as the haunts of stars like Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman.
The defeat is hugely embarrassing to Morrison, who even floated the idea of moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — upending decades of Australian foreign policy — in an apparent bid to woo Wentworth’s Jewish voters.
It was not clear what would become of that plan following the election’s results, but with Morrison now effectively a lame duck prime minister, its prospects appeared diminished.
The Palestinian Authority delegation to Australia had lambasted Morrison’s announcement as “deeply disturbing.” In a statement to the Guardian, the delegation warned Canberra that its standing in the Arab Muslim world would be damaged, and urged the government “to seriously consider the consequences of any such move.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had welcomed Morrison’s announcement, saying in a statement on Tuesday that he was “very thankful” the prime minister was considering the policy change.