Honeymoon Bounce for Turnbull Tested in Special Aussie Election

  • Ballot in Western Australia triggered by death of lawmaker
  • Vote seen as touchstone of PM's popularity since taking job

New Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull faces the first test of his popularity this weekend as his Liberal Party seeks to hold a parliamentary seat in Western Australia in a special election.

The ballot in the seat of Canning was triggered by the death in July of Liberal lawmaker Don Randall, who’d represented the district since 2001. The vote will be a gauge of whether Turnbull has already begun to turn around the party’s fortunes, after ousting Tony Abbott from the top job on Sept. 14.

Opinion polls taken before Abbott’s ouster indicated the Liberals would hold the seat, albeit with a greatly reduced margin --- amid a voter backlash against a government marred by internal divisions and slowing economic growth. The district is at the heart of a state that’s suffering from a slowdown in mining investment amid slowing growth in demand from China for its iron ore, copper and other minerals.

“There’s no doubt that Turnbull is a more popular politician than Abbott so that should help,” said Martin Drum, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Notre Dame, southwest of the state capital, Perth, who’s predicting the Liberals will narrowly hold the seat. “Still, it never looks good to have the chaos of a leadership challenge a few days out from an election so there may be some voters deterred by that.”

Rising Unemployment

Canning, a district with about about 100,000 voters, includes the working-class southern fringes of Perth, farmland and the coastal city of Mandurah. The state’s unemployment rate rose to 6.1 percent in August from 3.9 percent three years ago. The national average is 6.2 percent.

“There’s a bit of hostility toward the federal government by Western Australians, who often feel ignored by Canberra on the other side of the country,” Drum said. “The state has seen a big change of sentiment in line with the fall in commodity prices and optimism for future growth has really disappeared.”

Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie, 32, is a former Army Captain in the Special Air Service Regiment who served in multiple tours of Afghanistan and the Middle East. He’s pledged to improve road infrastructure and combat an “epidemic” of methamphetamine abuse if elected.

Hastie told reporters after Turnbull’s victory he supported the new leader and didn’t think the leadership turmoil would impact his election chances.

"Commentators can say what they want,” he said. “Malcolm Turnbull’s supported me on the campaign.”

Abbott’s Unpopularity

Labor candidate Matt Keogh, a 33-year-old lawyer who’s helped the government prosecute white-collar crime, has highlighted Abbott’s unpopularity during the campaign --- attacking spending cuts and “broken promises.”

“What we have really seen is the instability and dysfunction of the government," Keogh told reporters Sept. 15, referring to the ouster of Abbott in a ballot of Liberal lawmakers. “The actions taken by Malcolm Turnbull are not about Australia and they are not about the people of Canning.”

While local issues will be a big factor in determining whether the Liberals will retain the seat, the result will be scrutinized for signs of a honeymoon bounce for the party since Turnbull took the leadership.

Randall retained the seat in September 2013 with 62 percent of votes to Labor’s 38 percent, on a two-party preferred basis -- deemed a “safe” margin by the Australian Electoral Commission. That buffer may be eroded to 52 percent to 48 percent, according to a Fairfax-Ipsos poll of voters in the seat published Sept. 14, before Turnbull won the leadership later that day.

National Elections

Turnbull, who worked as a political journalist, a lawyer and investment banker before entering politics, has about a year to turn around the fortunes of the government before national elections are due. The government has trailed Labor in opinion polls for more than 12 months.

He is expected to swear in his new ministry in Canberra on Monday, with speculation that he will replace Treasurer Joe Hockey with Social Services Minister Scott Morrison in a bid to shore up management of the economy.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE