SYDNEY – Australia’s ruling coalition was forced into minority government on 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.
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 seats, including that of the speaker. The opposition Labor Party holds 69, 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 its people having a say.
Morrison said that while the loss was not unexpected given indications from opinion polls, 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, before adding defiantly, “But as a party, we will continue to rise again.”
Morrison pledged that his government would continue as usual — even without a majority — when Parliament returns on Monday, promising to work closely with independent lawmakers.
“We will work constructively with all of those who sit on the cross bench as we always have,” he said.
Speaking to reporters, Phelps declined to say how she might vote should a no-confidence motion be moved against the government in Parliament, but indicated she wants the government to run its full term, which expires next May.
Phelps, a doctor and former head of the Australian Medical Association, said the result should count as a warning to Australia’s lawmakers.
“People have been concerned about the direction of government for a very long time and we’ve seen a lack of decency, a lack of integrity, and we have to look at what the House of Representatives is about,” Phelps said. “It is about representing the people and the people have spoken loud and clear.”
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 Liberal candidate 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 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but sparked concern among Palestinian officials and leaders in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.