Australian PM says government at risk if it loses Sydney by-election

Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull waves to the crowd upon his arrival to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and related meetings in Clark, Pampanga, northern Philippines November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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By Colin Packham and Elouise Fowler

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Wednesday his government’s future was at risk if it lost a Sydney by-election this weekend and failed to regain its one-seat majority, forcing it to rely on independents to survive in power.

Turnbull’s conservative voter base in the harbourside seat of Bennelong, usually a safe blue-ribbon seat, has collapsed, according to an opinion poll on Tuesday.

The Newspoll in The Australian newspaper said Turnbull’s Liberal-National coalition and the opposition Labor each have a 50 percent chance of winning on a two-party preferred vote, with Liberal voters deserting to a newly formed conservative party.

“It is a tight race. It is very high cost. If Labor were to win in Bennelong, then (Labor leader) Bill Shorten would be very close to becoming prime minister,” Turnbull told reporters in Sydney.

If Turnbull loses Bennelong, it would only take the loss of support from key independents in a vote of no confidence to see his minority government topple.

Centre-right Labor has not held power since 2013.

Turnbull has led a minority government since October after his deputy prime minister was forced to quit parliament for holding dual citizenship. Under Australia’s constitution, national politicians can only have Australian citizenship.

The deputy prime minister was re-elected on Dec. 2 after renouncing his New Zealand citizenship, but Turnbull failed to regain his one-seat majority because Bennelong’s Liberal incumbent, former tennis champion John Alexander, quit parliament because he believed he might hold dual Australian-British citizenship.

Turnbull’s future now rests on the voters of the affluent Bennelong electorate, where 13 percent of electors were born in either China or Hong Kong.

But a strain in relations between Australia and China in the past week may cost Turnbull votes.

Turnbull announced last week a ban on foreign political donations aimed at preventing external influence in domestic politics. He singled out China in announcing the ban, prompting a rebuke in China’s People’s Daily newspaper.

“Australia must recognise China is now leading the world. The government’s attitude towards China will cost them votes, said Cao Gui Dong, a candidate for the Christian Democrat Party in Bennelong.

A loss in Bennelong would also see Turnbull’s grip on the prime ministership again come under scrutiny, with one Liberal politician already calling for him to quit before Christmas.

Turnbull has fought off leadership speculation for most of 2017, amid a slump in polls as voters flock to far-right parties, but has vowed to lead his government to the next election due in 2019.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry)
Copyright 2017 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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