Australia's Ruling Coalition Forced Into Minority Government

A swing of more than 20 percent against the sitting party propels independent candidate Kerryn Phelps to victory; of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives, Liberals now hold 75

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, center, Treasurer Scott Morrison, left, and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg, in Canberra, Australia, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018.
Rod McGuirk,AP

Australia’s ruling coalition was forced into minority government Saturday after a massive swing against its senior partner, the Liberal Party, in a by-election for the seat of the prime minister the party itself had dismissed.

In a stinging backlash from the electorate after the fourth toppling of an Australian leader by internal party vote in just eight years, a swing of more than 20 percent against the sitting Liberals propelled independent candidate Kerryn Phelps to a decisive victory.

The result cost the conservative Liberal-National party coalition its one-seat majority in the House of Representatives, forcing Prime Minister Scott Morrison to rely on deals with independent lawmakers to guarantee confidence in his government, enact legislation and ensure money supply.

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The next general election is due in seven months, and there was no immediate talk Saturday that it would be held any sooner.

With Phelps saying she has “no intention of bringing down the government” and other independent lawmakers also vowing to support Morrison’s administration, it would seem unlikely that any no-confidence motion brought against the government between now and the election would succeed.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. projections hailed Phelps as the winner after just 9 percent of votes had been counted, forecasting she would gain a 57 percent share of votes on a two-party preferred basis.

Liberal candidate Dave Sharma conceded defeat soon afterward, saying: “Tonight’s result has been over a little sooner than I expected. I’m certainly glad I kept my day job.”

Of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives, the Liberals now hold 75. The opposition Labor Party holds 69 seats, while independents have six.

The by-election was triggered when Malcolm Turnbull quit politics after being deposed as prime minister.

It’s the first time in their 117-year history the Liberals have lost the Wentworth seat, showing the depth of voter reaction to Australia’s latest change of leadership without the people having their say.

Morrison said that while the loss was not unexpected, his party had received a loud message from voters.

“They have looked at Canberra and the Liberal Party has paid a big price tonight for the events of several months ago,” he said, adding defiantly, “But as a party, we will continue to rise again.”

Speaking to reporters, Phelps declined to say how she might vote should a no-confidence motion be moved in Parliament against the government, but indicated she wants the government to run its full term, which expires next May.

The by-election campaign, in a seat with a large Jewish population, drew international attention last week when Morrison raised the prospect of following the United States by relocating Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Morrison said the idea was suggested to him by Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel.

Slammed by critics as a cynical bid to garner Jewish votes in the by-election, Morrison’s statement was welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but sparked concern among Palestinian officials and leaders in Indonesia.