Turnbull's Authority on the Line in Tight Sydney Election Race

(Bloomberg) -- The fate of Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government could be determined at a special election in Sydney on Saturday as a lawmaker caught up in a furor over dual citizenship seeks to regain his seat.

A win for Liberal candidate John Alexander in the district of Bennelong would mean the government regains its majority, taking some pressure off the prime minister. A loss would force Turnbull to continue to rely on cross-party support to pass legislation. That outcome could spook lawmakers from the ruling coalition, leading them to question if Turnbull can lead them to victory at the next federal election.

Turnbull has campaigned heavily in Bennelong since the seat became vacant last month when Alexander realized he was ineligible for parliament because he was a dual citizen, violating constitutional law. While the former tennis star has since renounced his British ties to re-contest the inner-city district he easily won last year, his bid has been complicated by competition from high-profile Labor candidate Kristina Keneally, a former state leader.

“It would be a relief for Turnbull if he keeps the seat,” said Peter Chen, a political analyst at the University of Sydney. “But even if he does, he isn’t going to survive past the next election unless he starts to articulate a proper policy agenda and manages his own party better.”

Majority Lost

Turnbull has struggled to put his mark on the government since he seized the leadership from unpopular Liberal colleague Tony Abbott in September 2015. He narrowly avoided defeat in an election in July 2016, while limited maneuvering room in parliament has seen large parts of his economic agenda stymied.

Turnbull lost his one-seat majority in parliament’s lower house when Alexander and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce had to give up their seats amid the fiasco over lawmakers holding dual nationality that has also ensnared politicians from other parties. Members of the prime minister’s own coalition have called on him to resign over poor public opinion polls.

While Joyce easily won back his seat in a special election two weeks ago, Alexander faces a tougher task. A Fairfax Media-ReachTell poll released Thursday showed his support had fallen to 40 percent, down from 50 percent at the 2016 election. Backing for Keneally -- who has accused Turnbull of running a “third-rate government” that raised electricity prices and struggled with a broadband infrastructure rollout -- was around 36 percent.

Turnbull has played up his economic credentials as a reason for voters to support Alexander and his coalition ahead of the next national election, due by 2019. At a Sydney briefing on Thursday, he said employment growth -- with 340,000 full-time jobs added in the first 11 months of the year -- was a direct result of his government’s policies.

Another issue in focus for Saturday’s vote is Turnbull’s spat with the Chinese government, and whether it might deter the 21 percent of Bennelong voters with Chinese heritage from supporting his candidate.

Turnbull this month introduced laws to crack down on interference by overseas powers, ban foreign political donations and toughen up definitions of treason and espionage. The prime minister singled out China’s influence when his government urged Labor Senator Sam Dastyari to quit over ties with a Chinese businessman who has links to the Communist Party. Dastyari later resigned. China summoned Australia’s ambassador on Dec. 8.

“Chinese-diaspora communities often have patriotism that’s dual and there’s a lot of Chinese Australians who would be very cautious about Beijing’s soft power and propaganda,” Chen said. “I don’t think it’s clear who they will support at this election.”

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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