Embattled Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s grip on power ahead of upcoming national polls was under renewed scrutiny Sunday after disappointing by-election results.
Five seats were up for grabs after four opposition politicians and one from a minor party fell foul of a constitutional rule barring dual citizens from serving in parliament.
Saturday’s by-elections were billed as a key test for Turnbull and Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten, with the governing Liberal-National coalition hoping to win a seat to double its wafer-thin parliamentary majority of one.
With Labor tipped to retain all four of its seats, including two that had been seen as too close to call — Longman in Queensland state and Braddon in Tasmania state — Shorten emerged as the clear winner.
“These by-elections were a very simple question — did people want more of the same or did they want better from their government,” Shorten told reporters in Queensland on Sunday.
“I think, in large numbers, they said we want better from the government… We had the better candidates (and) the better policies.”
Turnbull spent Sunday downplaying suggestions the results, particularly in Longman where there was a 10 percent swing against the coalition’s candidate, placed his leadership in peril ahead of national polls.
Turnbull, a moderate Liberal, has battled disquiet from right-wingers in the coalition after he ousted former PM Tony Abbott in a party-room vote in September 2015.
“This was a conventional swing in one electorate,” Turnbull told reporters in Sydney.
“I assure you, when we come to the federal campaign, Australians will see there is a very clear choice then… We will look very seriously and thoughtfully and humbly at the way in which the voters have responded.”
National upper-house elections have to be called by mid-May and lower-house polls by early November next year, though they are usually held on the same day. Turnbull has said he would call an election in the first half of 2019.
Following the by-elections, analysts said the government could lose power and its hold on marginal seats in the critical state of Queensland at the next national election.
The results also raised questions over whether key coalition policy proposals, including tax cuts for large companies, should be changed or shelved.
The tax cuts were heavily criticised by Labor during their by-election campaigns as handouts for big business at the expense of the average worker.