Scott Morrison has been Australian prime minister for barely two months, but if the Liberal party fails to win a by-election in Sydney on Saturday it could be the seventh time that the nation’s leader has been bundled out of office in just over a decade.
The vote in Wentworth, the Sydney constituency previously held by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, is one of the wealthiest in Australia and has never been held by the opposition Labor party. But the dumping of Mr Turnbull as Liberal leader and prime minister in August has angered many supporters of the government, which retains a one-seat majority in parliament.
“We are sick of changing prime minister every few months. It is making our politics the joke of the world,” said voter Sami Badaoui, as he emerged from a pre-poll centre, where constituents can cast ballots before polling day.
“The government needs to be punished because they are looking after themselves not the people.”
Mr Morrison has not been helped by Mr Turnbull’s son Alex, who recorded a message to Wentworth voters urging them not to vote Liberal as they had been taken over by the “hard right”.
The anger towards the Liberal-National coalition, which has held power since 2013, has alarmed the campaign of Dave Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel who is standing as the Liberal candidate. Leaked internal Liberal polling published by The Australian newspaper suggests independent candidate Kerryn Phelps leads Mr Sharma by 55 to 45 per cent.
“It’s not a normal by-election,” said Mr Sharma, on the fringes of a candidates debate at the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club in Sydney.
“It will have big consequences nationally, whether we have continued Liberal-National government in Canberra or whether we have a hung parliament with the balance of power controlled by half a dozen independents and all the uncertainty that brings.”
The huge stakes at play have contributed to a frenetic campaign in Wentworth, where the Liberals are expected to spend A$1m ($715,000) — a huge amount in Australia for a by-election. It has prompted Mr Morrison to announce a series of policy U-turns on issues designed to resonate with Liberal voters in Wentworth — a rich and socially progressive constituency where 13 per cent of the population is Jewish.
On Tuesday, Mr Morrison announced he was reviewing whether to move Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and withdraw Canberra’s support for the Iran nuclear deal. He said his position on the Israeli embassy was guided by a discussion with Mr Sharma but denied he was preparing to abandon Australia’s longstanding bipartisan Middle East policy in pursuit of electoral gains.
Labor has accused the government of panicking and threatening Australia’s long-term interests in the Middle East in a desperate bid to win votes. “I think the voters of Wentworth are too smart to support a government that thinks Donald Trump’s foreign policy is a model,” said Tanya Plibersek, deputy Labor leader.
Mr Morrison has signalled that the coalition may be willing to relocate to New Zealand hundreds of refugee families that it has detained in terrible conditions on the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru. It follows years of resistance to such a move over fears that the refugees could in the future move to Australia when they eventually secure New Zealand citizenship.
Canberra has pledged that any refugees who arrive by boat in Australian waters to apply for protection will never be settled in the country under its ultra-hardline asylum policy. But its failure to find countries in which to resettle the refugees has created a mental health emergency on Nauru, according to doctors, who warned this week that some severely traumatised children were at risk of death unless relocated.
Mr Morrison is also planning to legislate to remove religious schools’ ability to expel gay pupils, although it is unclear if gay teachers will be afforded the same protection.
The danger for Mr Morrison is that disenchanted voters in Wentworth will view the coalition’s erratic policy shifts as a bid to retain power. He also faces the challenge of winning votes without a credible climate or energy policy in a constituency where environmental issues rate highly.
As the public filed out of the candidates debate at the Bondi surf club this week, one voter, Tracey Hamilton, said she would vote Labor to unseat the government.
“For me climate change is the number one issue,” she said. “It was disgusting what they did to Malcolm Turnbull. He was a good person. The Liberal party has been driven too far right.”
Australia’s ‘Game of Thrones’?
Since 2007, the country has had six changes of leadership. Here are some key moments:
Labor leader Kevin Rudd defeats John Howard in a general election, ending more than a decade of Liberal-National coalition government
Tony Abbott defeats Malcolm Turnbull by 42 to 41 votes to claim the Liberal party leadership, following a dispute about support for the government’s emissions trading scheme
Rudd sinks in opinion polls following disputes over climate policy and a mining tax, prompting his deputy Julia Gillard to challenge for the Labor leadership. She is elected unopposed and becomes prime minister
Rudd resigns from cabinet and challenges Gillard to a leadership vote, but loses the ballot
Rudd ousts Gillard as leader in another vote, and becomes prime minister again
Abbott leads the Liberal-National coalition to a landslide electoral victory over Rudd
Turnbull ousts Abbott in a party room ballot by 54 to 44 votes, accusing him of poor economic management and failing to connect with voters
The Liberal-National coalition achieves only a one-seat majority in parliament in an election they were expected to win easily, denting Turnbull’s authority
Turnbull narrowly defeats Peter Dutton by 48 votes to 35 in a snap leadership contest sparked by wrangling over energy policy and poor polling
Scott Morrison takes over as prime minister in August after Turnbull is dumped as Liberal party leader. Morrison defeats Dutton by 45 votes to 40 in a party room ballot
Get alerts on Australian politics when a new story is published