SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison could face a backlash in a by-election this weekend as voters in a once-safe seat weigh whether to strip the conservative government of its one-seat parliamentary majority.
The Saturday by-election in Sydney’s diverse, affluent Wentworth constituency is the first major test of Morrison’s standing with voters, many of whom are angry over the ousting of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in August following a backbench revolt.
Wentworth was Turnbull’s seat. He quit politics days after his removal.
If the government were to lose the seat, Morrison would have to try to strike a deal with a handful of independents to govern with a minority, or be forced into an early general election.
Morrison’s Liberal Party won the seat by a 17.7 percent margin in the last election in 2016 but polls indicate it will be a tight race.
“There are plenty of angry voters and there will be a significant protest vote over the treatment of Turnbull and the government’s climate polices, which is the dominant issue,” John Hewson, a former leader of the Liberal Party and a former MP for Wentworth, told Reuters.
“It really is a 50-50 race.”
Australians mark their ballot papers in order of their candidate preference. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes given to the second preference candidate. This continues until one candidate wins.
With the by-election too close to call, Morrison on Tuesday moved to win favour with the electorate’s large Jewish community by announcing he was considering moving Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
According to census data, 13 percent of Wentworth’s electorate is Jewish, and Morrison said the idea had been advanced by Dave Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel and now Liberal Party candidate for Wentworth.
Sharma denied that the proposal to move the embassy was related to the by-election. He also said he strongly supported “the emergence of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state, living alongside Israel in peace”.
Stretching from Bondi Beach to Sydney’s harbour, the Liberal Party’s economic credentials have traditionally been the dominant lure for most voters.
While the scores of ocean view mansions provide evidence of the electorate’s wealth, it also belies Wentworth’s progressive voter base.
More than 80 percent of the electorate voted for same-sex marriage last year, well ahead of the national average, while many in the area also want to reject fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy.
While nearly two-thirds of voters backed Turnbull in 2016, this time, Wentworth looks set to be a referendum on Morrison, a staunch conservative and supporter of the coal industry.
Should voters reject the government, Morrison will be left with a choice of either trying to form a minority government or calling an early election while trailing in the polls.
Bob Katter, one of two former ruling party members who are now independents in parliament who the government will mostly likely have to rely on to get any legislation through, warned he would exact a high price for his support.
“It’s not for me to call it a threat but when I don’t get a fair go, then it is mayhem time,” said Katter, who declined to specify what exactly he would demand.
Reporting by Colin Packham in SYDNEY; Editing by Robert Birsel