Australia's ruling coalition forced into minority government

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, speaks next to Liberal candidate Dave Sharma at a Liberal Party Wentworth by-election function in Double Bay in Sydney, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. With 15 percent of votes counted Saturday, Sharma conceded defeat to independent candidate Kerryn Phelps.Australia's ruling coalition will be forced into minority government after a heavy defeat in a by-election for former Liberal Party Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's old seat. (Chris Pavlich/AAP Image via AP)
Independent candidate Kerryn Phelps delivers her victory speech at a Wentworth by-election evening function at North Bondi Life Saving Club in Sydney, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. Australia's ruling coalition will be forced into minority government after a heavy defeat in a by-election for former Liberal Party Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's old seat. With 15 percent of votes counted Saturday, Liberal candidate Dave Sharma conceded defeat to Phelps. (Chris Pavlich/AAP Image via AP)
Independent candidate Kerryn Phelps, right, is congratulated by supporters as she arrives for a Wentworth by-election evening function at North Bondi Life Saving Club in Sydney, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. Australia's ruling coalition will be forced into minority government after a heavy defeat in a by-election for former Liberal Party Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's old seat. With 15 percent of votes counted Saturday, Liberal candidate Dave Sharma conceded defeat to Phelps. (Chris Pavlich/AAP Image via AP)

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.

The next general election is due in seven months, and there was no immediate talk Saturday that it would be held any sooner.

With Phelps saying she has "no intention of bringing down the government," and other independent lawmakers also vowing to support Morrison's administration, it would seem unlikely that any no-confidence motion brought against the government between now and the election would succeed.

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, including that of the speaker. The opposition Labor Party holds 69 seats, while independents have six.

The by-election was triggered when Malcolm Turnbull quit politics after being deposed as prime minister in August.

There was no comment from Turnbull on the election result as of late Saturday night.

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 the people having their say.

Morrison said that while the loss was not unexpected given 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 in Parliament against the government, 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 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 this past 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.

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