SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s ruling coalition is facing a major defeat in a state by-election after voters vented their frustration over recent political infighting that led to a change in prime minister.
Rural voters in Wagga Wagga, an agricultural electorate in New South Wales (NSW), posted a 29 per cent swing against the Liberal Party in first preference voting, according to Australian Electoral Commission figures on Sunday, in a result that will strip the party of the rural seat for the first time since 1956.
Independent candidate, Joe McGirr, was expected to win with a leading primary vote of 24.69 percent, although counting will continue on Monday to confirm the result.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian conceded defeat on behalf of the party in a news conference, saying her government had heard the “strong message” the voters had sent.
The by-election has been seen as the first test of sentiment since new Prime Minister Scott Morrison took over leadership of the ruling Liberal-National coalition last month following a backbench revolt.
Deputy leader, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, told the ABC’s Insider’s program the loss was due to “local factors”.
Stewart Jackson, politics lecturer at the University of Sydney said the by-election result indicated voter anger.
“There’s a certain anger in the rural areas in any case overlaid by problems with the Liberal brand and National brand,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“In terms of the federal level, there’s instability of leadership and federal instability in other policy areas, particularly energy is one of the key elements.”
The new prime minister faces a test on Monday as he steers the government through a hostile session of parliament where he is expected to be challenged about allegations of Liberal Party bullying, particularly of women.
Former deputy leader Julie Bishop criticized her Liberal Party colleagues over the fact that less than 25 percent of the party’s members of parliament were women.
Bishop, in her first public comments since resigning as foreign minister, said the turmoil had “given rise to a much broader debate about the workplace culture in Canberra, with allegations of bullying and intimidation, harassment and coercion, and the unfair, unequal treatment of women”.
Frydenberg said any discussion of bullying would remain internal.
“What we do have is a problem in the Liberal Party, which I’m determined, and Scott Morrison is determined to address, which is to get more female representation,” he said.
Reporting by Alison Bevege